Billed as “the largest Jewish sporting event ever,” the Maccabiah Games opened in spectacular fashion on Thursday night with a precession of Jewish athletes from around the world into Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium.

The Maccabiah torch was lit by American gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman.

Some 9,000 athletes from 78 countries - including first-timers Albania, Cuba and Nicaragua - entered behind huge helium balloons carried by members of the Maccabi youth movement. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood as the 2,270-strong Israeli delegation entered the stadium last.

“Year after year, Jews from around the world say ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ but today all of you who have come here to participate in the 19th Maccabiah Games can proudly say, 'this year in Jerusalem,'” Netanyahu said in a brief speech. Twice referring to Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal and undivided capital,” he encouraged the athletes to tour the country and consider emigrating from their home countries and making aliyah.

U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron both wished the athletes good luck in pre-recorded video messages. They both congratulated Peres on his 90th birthday. Obama called the Maccabiah “a great reminder of the power of sports to bring people together and inspire the best in all of us.”

The opening ceremony took place in the shadow of the tragedy that took place during the opening ceremony of the 1997 Maccabiah in Tel Aviv, when four Australians died after a bridge collapsed over the Yarkon River. As the Australian delegation entered the stadium, the MCs acknowledged Josh Small, a tenpin player and the son of one of the victims, Greg Small. Later, the crowd stood in a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the tragedy, as well as the victims of the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics massacre, and other terror attacks against Jews in Israel, Argentina and around the world.

Before the ceremony, the athletes mingled in a staging area behind the stadium, taking photos and exchanging pins and hats in a time-honored tradition of international competitions.

Fencer Adam Mandel, who hails from White Plains, New York, said he would savor the experience. “I’ve been competing for a while, and I’ve been to many different countries,” he said. “The fact that I’m here surrounded by people from all over the world with a common identity is just amazing. This is an experience that I’ll never forget.”

Loraine Parsser, an 18-year-old soccer player from Holland, said she looked forward to meeting other Jewish athletes. “We practiced hard and we’ll do our best, but we are not as strong as the larger delegations,” she said. “It’s not just about winning. It’s also an opportunity to make new friends.”

In the days leading up to the Games, there was concern that an ongoing Foreign Ministry strike would prevent some athletes from receiving entry visas to Israel. However, a spokesperson for the Maccabiah told Haaretz that all the athletes arrived as planned.