The 19th Maccabiah Games kick off Thursday night with a gala opening ceremony at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium that is expected to draw some 32,000 spectators. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres will honor the 9,000 athletes representing 71 countries, the largest number of competitors ever at the 'Jewish Olympics.'
The ceremony will include the traditional parade of athletes and lighting of the Maccabiah torch, as well as performances by popular musicians from Rami Kleinstein and Harel Skaat to newer talents such as the Grammy-winning, Israeli-born violinist Miri Ben Ari; the Canadian-born singer Kathleen Reiter, winner of "The Voice Israel" and "The X Factor" (United States) finalist Carly Rose Sonenclar.
While the celebration will be genuine, the memory of the bridge collapse that claimed the lives of four Australian athletes and injured 60 additional members of the Australian delegation during the opening ceremony of the 1997 Maccabiah Games remains.
Despite the terrible tragedy of the bridge disaster, in some sense it seems to have strengthened Australia's Jewish community and its athletes' deep connection to the Maccabiah Games. Josh Small, whose father, Greg Small, died in the collapse, is competing in his second Maccabiah this year. At Monday's memorial ceremony, held at Ramat Gan Stadium, Small said: “My life, that of my family and the lives of the Bennett, Sawicki and Zines families, changed dramatically 16 years ago. I stand here representing all of us … Like my father, Maccabi has played an important part of my life. This is my second Maccabiah Games in ten-pin bowling, just like my dad Greg. In fact, I’m wearing my dad’s bowling shirt."
For many of the delegations, the Maccabiah is a family tradition. Adam Joseph, who competed in the 1997 games as a teenager, met his wife, Bec, at the 2005 games. This year, with their 18-month-old baby in tow, they are playing on the Australian men's and women's soccer teams, respectively.
The Indian delegation features two father-and-son pairs, in tennis and table-tennis doubles. Even more intriguing is what is expected to be an exciting cricket match Friday in Ashdod. Jitesh and Roshan Bangera, representing the Indian national team, will play against their older brother Shailesh, who immigrated to Israel a decade ago and is playing for his adopted nation.
While the rest of the Indian delegation is staying at Ramat Gan's Kfar Maccabiah Hotel, Jitesh and Roshan are bunking with brother Shailesh in Lod. This is Jitesh's first visit to Israel, and only a few days after arriving he says he will consider giving up his currency-exchange job at Thomas Cooke in Mumbai and joining Shailesh in Israel. Roshan, who manages a pizza parlor in Mumbai, visited Israel previously with Birthright. He says he has no intention of immigrating to Israel.
For now it's all banter among the brothers. Shailesh, who now goes by the very Israeli name Shai, is positive that Israel will hammer India on the cricket field. Wait and see, Jitesh and Roshan say.
The Bangera brothers faced each other earlier this week when Shailesh's local team, Superland Lod, beat the Indian team in a practice game. Still, Roshan and Jitesh are sure the official game will be another affair entirely. "Both teams are excellent, and you really can't tell how a cricket game will develop," Shailesh says, adding, "The Israeli team has really gelled together in the past few months. We keep talking about Friday's game, and all this talk is good fun, but after the game, I believe, I'll continue talking and they will have to find something else to talk about."
The games are scheduled to close on July 30, in a second impressive ceremony. Roshan and Jitesh both say they hope to attend the 20th Maccabiah Games, in 2017.
It seems that 81 years after the first games were held in Tel Aviv, with Mayor Meir Dizengoff riding through the streets on a white horse and the release of 120 carrier pigeons - 10 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel - the Maccabiah Games continue to serve as a bridge between the State of Israel and Jewish communities abroad.