The planet’s largest Jewish get-together and one of the largest sporting events in the world kicked off in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, with tens of thousands of spectators gathering to applaud delegates from over 70 countries launching the 2013 Maccabiah Games.

Years of planning and months of work reached their peak at the opening ceremony, which many past participants have described as their most significant memory from the games. Some 9,000 athletes are participating in this year’s Maccabiah; some of the events have already got under way.

There was heavy traffic on all the routes leading to Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium Thursday evening, as the teams, families and supporters made their way to the opening. The delegations filed through the stadium, country by country, to warm applause from a packed crowd.

For many participants, the 19th “Jewish Oympics” aren’t only a Jewish get-together, they’re also a prestigious sporting event. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Garret Weber-Gale carried the flag for team USA on his first visit to Israel, and Canadian Olympian Josh Binstock carried his delegation’s flag. Olympic sprinter Steve Solomon held the Australian flag.

According to the organizers, the ceremony was the largest since the first Maccabiah games were held in 1932. A statement noted that the ceremony included “the athletes’ march, the lighting of the Maccabiah torch, and live performances by local and internationally renowned artists.”

Rami Kleinstein, Grammy Award winner Miri Ben Ari and X-Factor finalist Carly Rose were among the artists performing at Thursday’s ceremony.

“The Maccabiah is the most important Jewish and Zionist event in the world,” Maccabiah chairman Amir Peled told The Times of Israel in an interview recently. “There is no Jewish-Zionist event in the world that comes close to doing what the Maccabiah does — reaching everyone, those who belong to a synagogue and those who don’t attend at all.”