As 21st ‘Jewish Olympics’ kick off in Israel, organizers set sights on wooing sabras

More than 10,000 participants from 60 countries will descend on Israel over the next two weeks for the 21st Maccabiah Games, the quadrennial “Jewish Olympics” first held in 1932.

After a one-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, this will be the largest Maccabiah ever held, with more than 30,000 individual competitions across 42 sports. Festivities begin on Thursday evening with the opening ceremony at Teddy Stadium, where United States President Joe Biden will potentially address the crowd.

Despite being held in Israel roughly half the time, the Maccabiah Games aren’t as popular in the Jewish state as organizers would like. In an effort to connect the wider Israeli public to the competition, this year’s theme is “Sports Celebration in Israel,” said Roy Hessing, Maccabiah CEO.

“The reason why we started this sports event is to make the connections between Israel and the Diaspora stronger,” said Hessing.

But this year, there’s a larger emphasis on bringing the competitions and parties to the local sabras, with more than 80 events open to the public, said Hessing. He added that the Maccabiah decided to hold events in Israel’s largest sports arenas in order to accommodate more spectators and that many of the popular events, including swimming, motocross, and ice hockey, are already sold out.

Public events and activities include the eight-day “Maccabiah Village” festivities at Netanya’s Poleg Beach, a night run in Jerusalem, a sports and technology fair in Tel Aviv’s velodrome, and a number of parties across the country.

Illustrative: Runners take part in the Maccabiah Night Run next to the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City on July 10, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sports fans can follow along with live coverage on the Maccabiah website. Some select events, including the opening ceremony, will air on Channel 12.

Israel will have the largest delegation, with 1,700 participants, followed by the USA with 1,400 participants, Argentina with 800 participants, and Canada with 700 participants. Participants include athletes, coaches, support staff, and, in some cases, families. Globally, there are more than 450,000 Jewish athletes involved in sporting events with the Maccabi World Union.

There are six new sports added to the roster since the last Maccabiah Games, including 3 × 3 basketball, sport climbing, beach volleyball, padel (a racket sport that is the combination of squash and tennis), motocross, and surfing. The Maccabiah is also considering adding ninja – an obstacle course sport that has swept Israel and the world – to future Games.

In a further attempt to reach broader audiences, Maccabiah events will be held in the Druze village of Daliyat al Carmel for the first time – but the move is likely intended primarily to reach spectators, not athletes. Though Israelis of any religion are permitted to participate in the games, and not only Jews, the Israeli national teams are made up of only some 7% non-Jews, well below their proportion of the Israeli population.

There are a number of countries participating in the Maccabiah for the first time, including the Bahamas with eight athletes – four in padel, and four golfers. There are also 45 athletes with the Ukrainian delegation, whose trip was fully subsidized by the Maccabi World Union and European Maccabi Conference.

Illustrative: The Australian delegation takes part in the opening ceremony of the 20th Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, July 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Russian and Belarusian Maccabi delegations withdrew from the Games after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This year, there will be another new delegation marching under the flag of “olim”Or new immigrants to Israel.

“We need their participation in order to improve competitions or to save competitions. They are coming from Ethiopia, from Ukraine, from Russia, from Mexico, from the USA – we’re looking worldwide for people who have made aliyah”Hessing said, using the Hebrew term for moving to Israel.

Roy Hessing, CEO (Maccabiah / Courtesy)

Any Jewish athletes with dual citizenship can participate as part of the olim team.

Hessing said that five percent of Maccabiah athletes end up immigrating to Israel after competing, and any athletes who move to Israel within a year and a half of the Games are eligible for additional grants from the Aliyah and Integration Ministry.

On Wednesday, the Ministry announced a fund for Maccabiah athletes who move to Israel, including more Hebrew instruction, support for studies or vocational training, and grants for entrepreneurs.

“As in every Maccabiah, thousands of Jews from across the Diaspora are arriving in Israel and they will have a meaningful opportunity to meet the reality of Israel, to get to know the country, to travel around and strengthen their bond to this place,” said Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. “The Maccabiah events are a golden opportunity to encourage aliyah and reveal ourselves to the young people from all of the world communities who will become the future Israelis.”

The entire cost of the Maccabiah is around NIS 200 million ($ 57.6 million), Hessing said, which comes from contributions from a number of government and private sector sponsors, as well as payment from individual participants. Participants from the USA and Canada, for example, paid around $ 8,000 for their trips. Hessing said the 10,000 visitors are expected to generate around NIS 350 million ($ 100 million) for the Israeli economy during their visit.

Chelsey Goldberg speaks at a press conference in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan, on July 12, 2022. (Melanie Lidman)

One of the people most excited for the Games to kick off is Chelsey Goldberg, a professional women’s hockey player from California. For the past two Maccabiah Games, Goldberg has watched her twin brother play, but there was no women’s team and organizers wouldn’t let her play on the men’s team.

Undeterred, Goldberg spent years recruiting female Jewish hockey players to fill the rosters for three teams – from Israel, Canada, and the USA – bringing women’s hockey to the Maccabiah for the first time.

“It’s a very special feeling being able to combine my religious background and athletic background,” Goldberg said, ahead of the opening ceremony. “I think it’s so powerful to meet so many other Jewish athletes that are fighting for the same thing and have the same goal in mind.”

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