After years of preparation and months of training, the 19th Maccabiah formally got under way Thursday in Jerusalem, the first time the Israeli capital hosted the international sporting event in its 81 year history.
From Morocco to Russia, Spain to Hong Kong, 78 countries are taking part in the third largest sporting event in the world, which many dub the “Jewish Olympics.” The 2013 games are the largest since the Maccabiah began in Tel Aviv in 1932.
With President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and a host of ministers and officials in attendance, the nearly 10,000 participants marched before the 30,000-strong crowd, proudly waving their national flags to the singing and cheering of their families and friends.
US Olympian Aly Raisman lit the Maccabiah flame at the ceremony, which featured pyrotechnics and performances with hundreds of dancers and popular Israeli singers, as well as electric violinist Miri Ben-Ari. American “X Factor” runner-up Carly Rose Sonenclar sang “Hallelujah.”
“After winning medals and winning achievement, go tour Israel. This is your country,” Netanyahu said in a welcoming speech that alternated between English and Hebrew. “I’ll tell you the truth. I hope you and your families decide after this visit to come and live here.”
The athletes are participating in 42 sports, as well as Paralympic events. Some 150 athletes who participated in the recent Olympic Games will be competing in the Maccabiah.
Former Israeli Olympians carried a large Israeli flag into the stadium, each accompanied by a participant in the special-needs events.
Amitzur Shapira, an Israeli athlete at the Munich Olympics, recited the Yizkor prayer of mourning in memory of the 11 members of the Israeli delegation who were killed in the 1972 Summer Olympics and the four Australian athletes killed in the the 1997 Maccabiah bridge disaster.
Paralympics tennis gold medalist Noam Gershony, four-time windsurfing world championship winner Lee Korzits, former Israel national soccer team goalkeeper Nir Davidovich and Israeli judoka Arik Ze’evi carried the Maccabiah torch into the stadium. They passed it to Raisman, an Olympic gold medalist, who lit the Maccabiah flame.
The speeches delivered by Peres, Netanyahu and Barkat all emphasized the eternal nature of Jerusalem, “the undivided capital of Israel,” which for the first time was hosting the opening ceremony and many of the events.
Uzbekistan’s two athletes followed Austria’s dozen or so team members, before Australia’s 416 strong delegation, led by Olympic sprinter Daniel Solomon, took the floor as the communities, in order of the Hebrew alphabet, marched into the stadium.
First-timers Bahamas led the way for a total of 21 small Jewish communities — including Guinea Bissau, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cuba — who sent a delegation to the Jewish Olympics for the first time.
With 1,100 delegates, the emcees happily announced that Team USA was the “largest traveling delegation in the history of sports;” its athletes marched around the main stage to the cheers of many family members and supporters. President Barack Obama wished Team USA luck in a televised broadcast and also wished Peres a happy 90th birthday.
The South African team carried a large banner with the face of former president Nelson Mandela, and the 370 athletes wore special badges on shirts to celebrate the 95th birthday of their former president. It was followed by an Indian delegation of some 20 participants, and, after the Netherlands walked out in their traditional orange dress, a small delegation from Hong Kong was warmly welcomed.
For the first time in decades, the Moroccan Jewish community appeared at the Maccabiah. The Moroccan and Turkish delegations were the only athletes representing Muslim nations in the games.
When the Cuban team was announced, it danced out to the floor with 13 dancers leading the way for the 40 or so athletes taking part in the games for the first time in the community’s history. Two teams later, Curacao’s delegation of three marched out in colorful traditional dress.
In contrast with the smaller delegations, the 600 Canadian participants filled the floor when they stepped out onto the pitch, led by Olympic beach volleyball player Josh Binstock.
Finally, in accordance with the Maccabiah’s tradition (and not by alphabetical order), the Israeli delegation of over 2,200 athletes, led by dozens of paralympians, marched out to the loud cheers and a standing ovation from the home crowd.