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Largest Ever “Jewish Olympics” Launch in Israel With Speeches from Presidents Obama and Peres

The 19th Maccabiah kicked off last Thursday evening with a raucous opening ceremony for 30,000 spectators in Jerusalem. The presidents of Israel and the United States were among the dignitaries welcoming the more than 9,000 participants from 70 countries. The games are the largest in the eight-decade history of the “Jewish Olympics.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking by video feed lauded the “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel, and wished his “good friend President Shimon Peres a very happy 90th birthday.”

For his part, Peres told the crowd and the participants that though they had “come from different places,” they “belong to the same family, a family whose face is always turned towards Jerusalem, the eternal capital of our people, the capital of justice and peace.”

The games have been held in the Holy Land – usually in Tel Aviv – every four years since 1932, except for a 12-year hiatus caused by the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.

This year’s 13-day, 35-sport event represents the world’s third-largest athletic event. Only the Olympics and the World University Games are larger. It includes first-time delegations from as far afield as Cuba, Aruba, and the tiny African republic of Guinea-Bissau.

The New York Times described the games and reported on the Cuban team. In the course of the report the Times also mentioned an American from New Jersey named Michael Bornstein, who once won two gold medals in rowing. Bornstein later moved to Israel, changed his family name to Oren, and became Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

On Thursday the ceremonial torch was lit by Jewish-American gymnast Aly Raisman. Raisman captained the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and took gold in the individual floor final to the tune of “Hava Nagila.” The performance was done in memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered in the Munich Olympics four decades earlier.

In the video embedded belwo, Raisman is handed the torch by Noam Gershony, a tennis player who claimed gold and silver medals at least year’s Summer Paralympics. Gershony was an Apache helicopter pilot involved in a crash during the 2006 Second Lebanon War that killed his copilot and left him seriously injured.

[Photo: Arsen Ostrovsky]