RAMAT GAN - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged western Jews to move to Israel during his speech at the opening ceremony for the 17th Maccabiah Games at the Ramat Gan Stadium on Monday.
"I hope that by the next Maccabiah, you will have immigrated here and be part of the Israeli delegation," Sharon told the crowd.
The world's largest Jewish sporting event opened with the biggest show in the event's 70-year history.
Israeli artist Roni Superstar officially opened the ceremony at 8:00 p.m. (1:00 EDT), accompanied by hundreds of dancers dressed in red and yellow costumes.
The Australian delegation led over 7,100 athletes from 55 countries into the ceremony, who marched into the National Stadium behind their national flags.
The Italian team carried a large banner reading "Italy loves Israel," the U.S. delegation was led by a group of cheerleaders, and the Mexican team appeared wearing sombreros. The Israeli team entered last, receiving the loudest cheers from the home crowd.
Remembering the past
The stadium lights were then dimmed and a short memorial ceremony honored four Australian victims killed in the 1997 Maccabiah bridge disaster, Holocaust victims, Israeli athletes killed in the 1972 Munich Olympics and IDF troops who have died in the line of duty.
More than 20,000 family members, friends and fans came to Israel to show their support and more than 40,000 people attended the opening ceremony.
The Maccabiah flag was carried by 10 teenage terror victims who are now part of the Sport Rehabilitation for Terrorism Victims program.
Olympic medal winning Judoka Arik Zeevi, who was originally considered to carry the torch, swore in the athletes.
'A magical moment'
Canadian Oren Tamir, who came to Israel to watch the event, said the opening ceremony was a "magical moment."
"Seeing Jews and athletes from across the world in the same stadium is quite emotional," he said. "It makes me proud to be a Jew."
Tamir said however, he still plans to cheer for the Canadian team.
"Canada is one of the world's strongest Jewish communities and I hope they deliver a strong performance here," he said.
Tel Aviv Police had been working on security for the opening ceremony for several weeks. To prevent crowding, stadium gates were locked a half hour before the 8:00 p.m. start, and 1,500 extra policemen were brought in to aid security efforts.