Thousands of Jewish athletes, their families and spectators filled Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on Thursday night to launch the opening of the 20th Maccabiah Games, as well as celebrate the surprise wedding of a Canadian hockey player and his girlfriend.
It was a night of celebration, as some 10,000 athletes from 80 different countries, marched into the center of the stadium by delegation, against a backdrop of dozens of undulating images of each of their flags.
The name of each nation was announced, from countries like Albania with three athletes, Jamaica with two and Morocco with one, to China and Puerto Rico, each participating for the first time, or the US and Israel, each with the largest delegations of 1,061 and 2,400, respectively.
In addition to the singing and dancing celebrating the games as well as the diversity of Israel, the opening ceremony included Canada’s Avi Steinberg proposing on stage to his girlfriend, Rachel, who had recently completed her conversion to Judaism. After she accepted, the hosts of the opening ceremony pulled out a wedding gown and huppah, and the couple’s rabbi, Avi Poupko, whom they knew from Canada, officiated at a ceremony in front of the beaming athletes and spectators.
Here's the Maccabiah Wedding! Mazel Tov!!! What an amazing idea!!!! pic.twitter.com/UH7FrceBQo
— Sports Rabbi (@thesportsrabbi) July 6, 2017
President Reuven Rivlin, in attendance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, welcomed the attendees home to Jerusalem and to Israel, marveling that the 20th Maccabiah is the largest in the event’s 85-year history.
“Then, in the year 1932, the skies over Europe had already began to darken. And today, today we stand here, marking the 20th Maccabiah Games themed around the 50th anniversary of liberation of Jerusalem,” he said, welcoming the athletes to “the rebuilt and free, eternal capital of Israel.”
“Jerusalem is the stronghold of Beitar (and of Hapoel),” said Rivlin, referring to the local soccer teams. “Once every four years, Jerusalem is home to the Maccabiah.”
The president also paid tribute to the four Australian-Jewish athletes who were killed during the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997 in the tragic bridge collapse, and to the Israeli athletes murdered in 1982 by Palestinian at the Munich Olympics – some of whom, the president noted, were Maccabiah champions. “Our hearts are with their families,” he said.
Netanyahu spoke as well, poking fun at himself for athletic adventures, past and present, in which he broke some limbs.
“I was pretty athletic when I was young and I tried out for the wrestling team. I broke my arm at 14. Then recently, I thought I’d take a shot at soccer. I played in a soccer game of young Jews and Arabs in Israel. I broke my leg,” he recounted.
“So, I cannot tell you, dear athletes, break a leg. I say: succeed, excel, win. You are all winners, you are all champions,” he said.
The prime minister invoked the ancient Maccabees, for whom the games are named, referring to the five brothers who “liberated our land against all odds.”
“The people of Israel are strong, and the state is strong,” he said, to the cheers of the crowd. “We are all descendants of the Maccabees.”
Anthony Ervin, a US swimmer who won gold medals in the 2000 and 2016 Olympics, lit the Maccabiah flame for the quadrennial competition that has been dubbed the “Jewish Olympics.” He was joined carrying torches by Yarden Gerbi, an Israeli judoka who took the bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio; Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA and now a member of the world champion Golden State Warriors; Fabien Gilot, a French- swimmer and three-time medalist; Neta Rivkin, the first Israeli rhythmic gymnast to win a medal in both the World and European championships; Moran Samuel, an Israeli rower who medaled at the Rio Paralympics in 2016, and Ori Sasson, an Israeli judoka who also won a bronze in Rio.
The Maccabiah’s 20th Games will have competitions in 40 sports, including two new ones, lacrosse and bridge. The biggest competition is in soccer, with 1,401 athletes from 20 countries. Swimming is the second largest, with 712 competitors from 34 counties, followed by tennis and basketball.
There’s the Maccabi Man competition, which includes a half-marathon, cycling and swimming in open water, with 140 athletes from 19 countries participating. There are Paralympic events as well, in basketball, table tennis and swimming.
Throughout the two-week event, participants will have the chance to attend Friday night services in Jerusalem, attend some of the capital’s street parties as well as those in Haifa and Tel Aviv, participate in a night race in Jerusalem, celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall, and inaugurate Jerusalem’s professional ice hockey hall at Pais Arena, where some competitions will take place.
For many families, the Maccabiah is an opportunity to visit Israel, and for many it’s their first time.
The Riveras, from Pacific Palisades, California, were present at the Maccabiah in force, as Dana Rivera’s three sons, Jake, Luke and Nicky, are all members of the USA ice hockey team, and brought their entire family along with them for the games.
“They were recruited,” said Rivera, who is in Israel with her parents, her mother-in-law, Jan Rivera, her husband, Rick Rivera, and her daughter and boyfriend. “They’re at a place in life where they wanted to come and wanted to be able to play together. So we all came with them.”
It was a similar story for Lynn and Alan Crown, from Sydney, Australia, who were in the stands with their grandchildren, Mia and Aden Goodrich, waiting for the three members of their family to march in with the Australian delegation. The Crowns’ daughter and granddaughter are both swimmers, and their son-in-law is the coach for the juniors team.
It’s not their first trip, nor their first Maccabiah, but they were relishing the chance to experience it with their grandchildren.
Candace Swick Hnatok’s daughter is also a junior swimmer, and Hnatok, hailing from Winnipeg, Canada, said that the Maccabiah was probably the only chance for their “interfaith family” to come to Israel.
“This is it,” she said. “It’s our one and only opportunity.”
JTA contributed to this report.