Oct 04, 2022
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What has been called the “Jewish Olympics” – the quadrennial sports competition held in Israel – begins formally this week with 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries from Albania to Venezuela competing in 43 different events. Although it is usually held here every four years, the 20th Maccabiah Games did not convene in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The games will close on July 26. 

The Maccabiah is the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition in the tradition and values of Maccabi, emphasizing the centrality of the State of Israel in the life of the Jewish people. The Maccabiah Games are the Maccabi World Union’s largest and most famous enterprise.

The opening ceremony highlighting Zionism, Judaism and sports will be held in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, named in memory of the great builder and promoter of the city, Mayor Teddy Kollek. Some 9,000 sportsmen took part in the Maccabiah in 2017. Soccer is the most popular event, followed by swimming and tennis, and physically disabled sportsmen will compete in Paralympics games. Every possible recognized sport from artistic gymnastics to weightlifting is being included in the schedule.

Australian Jewish athletes will lead the procession at the opening ceremony because they appear in alphabetical order as some 30,000 spectators will watch in the stadium. The US sent the biggest foreign team with over 1,000 people who included coaches, doctors and others. Israel is being represented by 2,400 sportsmen and women. 

Ninety years ago, in the year 1932, the 1st Maccabiah was held, with 390 sportsmen and sportswomen from 18 countries competing. Then, some 2,500 gymnasts participated in the opening ceremony exercises show in the “Maccabiah Stadium,” the first sports stadium in the Land of Israel. The construction of the stadium in the Yarkon estuary in north Tel Aviv was completed the night before the opening of the games.

The idea was conceived by a 15-year-old Jewish youth, Joseph Yekutieli, against the background of the 1912 World Olympics in Stockholm.  For the next decade, he mulled it over until he formulated a detailed plan.  After another decade of intensive efforts, endless lobbying and tireless knocking on the doors of rulers, secretaries, government officials, authorities and close friends, the plan – which had appeared to many to be too daring and pretentious – took shape and became a reality.

In 1928, Yekutieli presented a proposal to Menachem Ussishkin, chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish National Fund, for the first convocation in Eretz Israel of Jewish athletes from all over the world, symbolically timed for the 1,800th anniversary of the Bar Kochba rebellion. At that time the Maccabi Movement was in the process of setting up an internationally recognized body representing all Eretz Israel’s sports, thereby paving the way for official participation in important international events.  It was clear that the proposed Maccabiah could not be organized without the approval of the international sports associations, which accepted only recognized countries into their ranks.  Only in 1928, after the Eretz Israel Soccer Association was founded and recognized by most of the international bodies, was the way paved for the organization of the first Maccabiah in Eretz Israel.

The organizers decided that the Maccabiada, as the Games were then called, would be held for members of the World Maccabi Federation, at designated intervals, patterned along the Olympic Games.  The purpose of these worldwide Jewish competitions was to allow the various participating associations an opportunity to test their strength, prepare themselves for international and Olympic competitions and to glorify the sports achievements of Jewish youth. 

The path towards the Maccabiada, which was Hebraized to Maccabiah, abounded with arguments and was strewn with stumbling blocks.  Alongside the differences of opinion which emerged in World Maccabi over the conduct and content of the Maccabiah, events in Eretz Israel took a grave turn, throwing doubt upon whether the games would ever take place.

On the 9th of Av 5689 (Summer of 1929) an anti-Jewish riot broke out at the Western Wall, spreading to all the Jewish communities in the Land of Israel except for Tiberias.  Hundreds of Jews were murdered.  Maccabi members volunteered for the Haganah, which was revealed in all its weakness during the riots.  Lord Plumer, the High Commissioner in Eretz Israel was replaced by Sir John Chancellor of the British Colonial Service, who rapidly showed himself to be pro-Arab and blatantly hostile to Zionism.

The Maccabiah was finally held on the intended date.  Sir Arthur Wauchope had replaced Chancellor as High Commissioner in the autumn of 1931, beginning the ׂGolden Age׃ of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel.  Wauchope admired Jewish sports and the achievements of the Zionist movement in Eretz Israel and extended his patronage to the Maccabiah, on condition that it host Arab and English groups. 

Two delegations of Jewish motorcycle riders set out from Tel Aviv for a promotion tour throughout Europe; the first in 1930 from Tel Aviv to Antwerp, and the second a year later from Tel Aviv to London.  Yekutieli himself participated in the delegation of young cyclists.  On the second tour which began on May 10th and ended on July 16th 1931, the riders covered 9,375 kilometers, from the Sinai desert through Cairo, Alexandria, Salonika, Gorna, Sofia, Belgrad, Novisad, Osijek, Zagreb, Vienna, Linz, Nuremburg, Frankfurt, Metz and Paris to London, Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham and Beirut.  In all these cities, they announced the Maccabiah which would take place the following spring in Eretz Israel, and masses of enthusiastic Maccabi members proclaimed their desire to participate in the ׂJewish Olympics.

The Maccabi World Union is the largest and longest running Jewish sports organization spanning over five continents, more than 60 countries, 450 clubs, and 400,000 members. A Zionist organization, it uses sports as a means to bring Jewish people of all ages closer to Judaism and Israel in addition to various informal educational activities in a manner that surpasses politics and sectarianism. Many Maccabi clubs serve as community centers and youth movements providing a diversity of educational, cultural, social and sports activities under one roof. 

Meanwhile, the Samson Assuta Ashdod Medical Center hosted International Volunteer Day, bringing together Maccabiah Games athletes and local elementary school pupils to the hospital. The sportsmen participated alongside children from the nearby Harel elementary school in immersive educational workshops taught by hospital staff and researchers. Together, the competitors and students learned from experts in the emergency medicine and physiotherapy departments. 

The day of service fostered connections between the Diaspora Jewish athletes and Israeli students and hospital staff, strengthening the bond between the Jewish State and Jewish communities around the world. Thirty-five pupils from first to sixth grade met 45 athletes from the American women’s basketball, men’s soccer and paddle-ball teams. “This experience helps to develop a sense of Jewish awareness and Jewish pride and creates a lifelong connection between the athletes and the State of Israel,” said Sharon Lifschutz, coordinator of the Maccabiah Games’ Lev L’Lev (Heart to Heart) volunteer program. The workshops include a first-response, emergency snakebite rescue simulation taught by the emergency department staff; a class on activating muscles while engaging in sports activities taught by the physiotherapy staff; a workshop on eating for athletic excellence taught by the hospital’s nutritionists; and a motivational seminar encouraging positive self-esteem and the power of personal effort and discipline. 

“There are many children in this school who never dreamed about becoming a doctor,” said Dr. Debra West, head of the hospital’s emergency department. “We believe that this experience not only teaches kids about healthcare but also introduces them to new possibilities and aspirations.”