The 41st annual JCC Maccabi Games involving hundreds of aspiring young Jewish athletes kicked off Sunday night with a grand opening ceremony at the Haifa International Convention Center and the blessing of President Isaac Herzog.
Some 1,000 teenage participants from the US, Israel, and numerous other countries marched into the stadium in their team colors and were warmly received by the spectators, none more so than the Ukrainian team, which was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation and a sea of fluttering Ukrainian flags.
The competitive stage of the games is taking place this week and will continue through July 25, followed by two weeks of touring Israel.
Held for the first time in 1982, the JCC Maccabi Games brings together Jewish teens from around the world to participate in an Olympics-style competition involving sports such as baseball, volleyball, swimming and tennis.
The teams are made up of young sportsmen and women who are participating members of their local Jewish Community Center (JCC).
Speaking in a video message, Herzog said that the essence of the Maccabi Games was not merely about playing sports and winning medals, but also about “preserving and strengthening the ties of Jewish people based on shared values.”
“On the field, on the court, in the rink, and as you tour our beautiful country Israel, you will build the bridges of understanding, love, and affection with your fellow Jewish people,” said the president.
Following Herzog’s address, chairman David Wax of the JCC Association of North America welcomed participants to “the celebration of Jewish peoplehood,” while Maccabi World Union chairman Amir Peled lauded the efforts of JCC and Maccabi in “encouraging Jewish youngsters to do the right thing — to love Israel, [and] to do sport.”
This year marks the first time the games have been held in Israel since 2011. The 74 delegations include teams from all over the US and Canada as well as Israel, Ukraine, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and, for the first time, Morocco.
One of the teams from North America is the J-Team, which is composed entirely of teenagers from small communities with either no JCC Maccabi delegation or no JCC at all.
“For two in three teams that you see marching today, this is their first and only Jewish teen engagement in a formal [Israel] program,” said Samantha Cohen, senior vice president at JCC North America. “For 50%, this is their first time in Israel.”
Jason Rosenbaum, a 17-year-old basketball player from the Hudson Valley, said he decided to participate in the games to help restore his connection to his Jewish identity.
“I felt that I’ve gone away from my Jewish roots in the past couple years and I thought that it would be a good cultural experience for me,” he told The Times of Israel, noting that this is his first time in Israel.
Jason’s teammate Jordan Haben — also 17 and also in Israel for the first time — said he was glad for the opportunity to “see a lot of stuff from the Torah that I’ve read. I didn’t think I’d ever get to see all that.”
The opening ceremony featured performers such as the Mayumana dance troupe and the Shalva band, as well as NBA star Deni Avdija.
Three athletes from Ukraine, Cleveland, and Israel were welcomed to the stage to guide the audience in reciting the JCC Maccabi oath.
The ceremony also included a reading of the Yizkor prayer in remembrance of the 1972 Munich massacre, and the singing of the American, Canadian, and Israeli national anthems.