Maccabiah Games – the Jewish Olympics

Tiny Israel is internationally known for its innovations and accomplishments in such diverse fields as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, military technology and communications. But sports?


Yes, sports!  On July 6, the 20th World Maccabiah Games opened in Israel, with the participation of some 10,000 athletes from 80 countries participating in 45 sports. This makes the Maccabiah the world’s third largest international multi-sport event in the world, following the Olympics and the Pan-Am games. That fact will come as a surprise to many, including Israelis themselves.

In addition to the dozens of events taking place at the 20th games in the host city of Jerusalem, competitions will be held at 68 sports complexes throughout the country. Competition is held in four categories: youth, open, masters and paralympics.

Unofficially known as the “Jewish Olympics,” the Maccabiah Games enable Jewish athletes from all over the world (as well as Israelis of very religion and ethnic origin) to come together not only to compete, but also to get to know each other on a social basis.

The games are organized by the Maccabi World Union and were first held in 1932. They are held quadrennially in Israel in the year following the Olympic Games. The games are named after Judah Maccabee, the leader of the Jewish revolt against the Syrian-Greek rulers of ancient Israel.

The Maccabiah Games were the result of an initiative of the late Yosef Yekutieli, who was an early pioneer and promoter of sports in pre-state Palestine during the period of the British mandate there. Yekutieli was a 1979 Israel Prize recipient for his special contribution to society and the state in sports. (The Israel Prize is Israel’s highest civilian honor.)

The first Maccabiah opened on March 28, 1932 in a stadium built in Tel Aviv for that purpose. Roughly 400 athletes from 18 countries took part in those games. The games were suspended after the 1935 games and not resumed until 1950, due to issues involving political conflicts and wars.

Soccer is the largest sport at the games, with more than 1,400 athletes from 20 countries participating in the competitions. The games have been the launching pad for many international Jewish sports stars, among whom are those who have gone to win Olympic medals and even set world records. . Many participants return to play or coach in the Maccabiah Games. There are also former Maccabiah contenders who have come to settle in Israel.