Israel Aims to Charm Maccabiah Athletes Into Moving to the Holy Land

Participants in 'the Jewish Olympics' and their families will be eligible for benefits on top of the standard absorption basket that new immigrants receive.

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry has unveiled enhanced benefits for Maccabiah athletes who pack up and move to Israel following the Jewish world's version of the Olympic Games.

The 19th Maccabiah opens Thursday. The event, which takes place every four years, is open to Jews throughout the world and all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion. Some 9,000 Jewish participants from 79 countries are expected to take part in "the Jewish Olympics" this year, according to the ministry.

Click here for our special Maccabiah section, including timetable, news and travel tips.

This is not the first time the ministry has offered Maccabiah participants such incentives, ministry spokesman Elad Sonn says. Around 250 of the 5,000 participants in the 2009 Maccabiah immigrated to Israel in the year and a half following those games, under a similar program. The ministry expects to beat that number this time around.

“For many of the participants, it's their first time here,” Sonn told Haaretz. “We have the opportunity to charm them. They will go on trips, see the country and meet people from the ministry.”

However attractive the incentives, and however charmed the participants, the ministry does not expect to see results overnight – the incentive package will be valid until December 31, 2014. “We give them one and a half years; it takes time," Sonn says.

Maccabiah participants and their families will be eligible for benefits on top of the standard absorption basket that new immigrants receive on moving to Israel.

These incentives include an increased one-off grant for sports professionals, financial assistance from the Israel Student Authority for university studies, financial assistance for professional training, and special Hebrew courses, Sonn says. Post-Maccabiah immigrants will also be given priority for programs that encourage people to settle in certain parts of the country.

“The Maccabiah is an important impetus for immigration to Israel," Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said in a statement this week. "We cannot give up on this opportunity to encourage young athletes and their families to immigrate and put down roots here. I am proud that the ministry took this welcome initiative and built a program that personally fits Maccabiah participants, and I hope that on their visits to Israel they will understand that this is their home.”

Marc Rosenberg, director of pre-aliyah at Nefesh B’Nefesh, says the immigration assistance organization has helped more than 40 Maccabiah participants take the plunge over the years. In fact, one of them will be arriving on the organization’s July charter flight next week. “Additionally, we have received a number of inquiries from athletes who are currently competing in this year’s Maccabiah,” says Rosenberg.

Dorron Kline, deputy director of Telfed, the Israeli arm of the South African Zionist Federation, says the organization will "personally inform" the South African delegation at the Maccabiah of the special benefits available.

But more than making a huge practical difference for new immigrants, Kline thinks the program's impact is in making potential immigrants feel special.

"It's a few added extras. Anything that we can give the olim a bit more is good, but the value in it – apart from the added 'here and there' – is that it pays them special attention. That's the bottom line," he says, adding that the program "showcases aliyah to the Maccabiah people."

Nir Keidar