The 20th Maccabiah Games opened on Thursday night with ceremony welcoming over 10,000 athletes from 74 countries who arrived in Israel to compete in 42 different sports in the "Jewish Olympics" over the next 10 days.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Maccabi World Union chairman Yair Hamburger, and dozens of other dignitaries from Israel and across the world were among the 30,000 spectators who watched the ceremony at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
"Welcome to Jerusalem, welcome to Israel. Welcome home. How great it is to see you all here in Jerusalem—the rebuilt and free, eternal capital of Israel—for the opening of the 20th Maccabiah Games," President Rivlin told the gathered athletes and guests.
"This is the biggest ever Maccabiah since the Games began 85 years ago. Then, in the year 1932, the skies over Europe had already began to darken. And today we stand here, marking the 20th Maccabiah Games themed around the 50th anniversary of liberation of Jerusalem," he continued.
The president quoted Yosef Yekutieli, one of the founders of the Maccabiah Games, who said the aim of the Games was "To elevate—not just physically, but also spiritually."
"The sporting spirit as we feel it, pushes us to break down the barriers of the body and soul. It pushes us to break through existing barriers. To create a new reality. To assess the boundaries, and to each time reach higher, be faster, stronger. This is the same spirit from which came Zionism. This is the same spirit from which came the Maccabiah," Rivlin said. "This is the spirit we expect from you also today, here at these Games, in the competitions, on the sports fields, in the swimming pools."
Prime Minister Netanyahu had a similar message to the gathered sportsmen and women. "Run, kick, jump high to the sky. Achieve everything you want and beyond," he said, recounting his own short-lived career in sports. "I tried my luck in the wrestling team and broke my hand when I was 14. Recently, I thought I'd try my luck in soccer. I played in a soccer game for Jewish and Arab youth in Israel, and I broke my leg. So I can't tell you, dear athletes, to 'break a leg.' I tell you to succeed, win. You're all winners, you're all champions."
He spoke of how the Maccabees fought against Alexander the Great 2,200 years ago and won against all odds. "You are the descendents of the Maccabees," he told the athletes.
Maccabi World Union chairman Yair Hamburger spoke of how his father and aunt competed in the first Maccabiah Games. "They fell in love with Israel and returned to Germany. Three years later, in 1935, they made aliyah... Maccabi saved my family from the clutches of the Nazis and I am proud to say that thanks to the Maccabi World Union I am living here in Israel with five children and 16 grandchildren," he said.
In an emotional, touching moment, ice hockey player Avi Steinberg of the Canadian delegation married his fiancée Rachel, who converted to Judaism a year ago. Rachel thought she was going on stage merely to be congratulated for the engagement, but instead she was surprised with wedding ceremony conducted by the rabbi who did her conversion.
Also during the ceremony, Na'ama Rahav read the "Yizkor" memorial prayer over son Bar Rahav of the Israeli water polo team, who chose to retire from his sports career so he could serve as a combat soldier in the IDF and was killed in battle at age 21 during Operation Protective Edge.
The Games' torch was lit by Jewish American swimmer Anthony Ervin, who won the Olympic gold medal in Sydney and Rio.
The Maccabiah flag was carried onto the stage by 12 Jews who contributed to the world of sports in Israel, while the Israeli flag was carried by well known Israeli athletes.
The Israeli delegation, which includes 2,714 athletes, was led by windsurfer Maayan Davidovich, who finished 7th in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Among the 74 delegations were also the United States (1,165 athletes), Australia (614), Canada (516), Brazil (491) and Britain (401).