18th Maccabiah Opener / 'It's Amazing, Everyone's Jewish'

7,000 athletes from 51 countries to compete in biggest 'Jewish Olympics' to date.

The opening ceremony of the 18th Maccabiah - the largest one to date - began Monday evening in Ramat Gan.

7,000 athletes from 51 countries will take part in the "Jewish Olympics" held every four years since 1932. The athletes will compete in 31 different sports events over the course of the next ten days.

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"It's amazing, everyone's Jewish," said Ian Mablin, of London, as he strode around the gathering place near Ramat Gan Stadium, moments before the different delegations were arranged in lines, equipped with pins, flags and hats and received marching instructions for the opening ceremony.

"My last Maccabiah was in 1993," the 61-year-old athlete continued, walking hastily to the British team's meeting point. "I won two silver medals and one bronze then, but now I'm a bit older, so it's going to be a bit harder. Sports is important, but the whole event itself is much more important. It's so much more."

Most athletes similarly spoke about the excitement they felt being united with so many Jews from all over the world. Ernest Strul, a 33-year-old soccer player from Offenbach, Germany - which has a Jewish community of 500 - said his personal highlight will be "on the field," but added he got goosebumps when he looked around the area and saw hundreds of athletes dressed in their national colors. "It is unbelievably beautiful to meet so many Jews from other countries."

"The most exciting thing is that the Maccabiah is a gathering of Jewish people representing their communities at a sporting event that is broadcast to Jewish households throughout the world," said Irvin Gordon, a 58-year-old squash player from Sydney. "This is a meeting of a diverse group of Jews with different backgrounds and social cultures, but at the end of the day, when they go to synagogue they pray in the same language as I do."

Others focused less on Judaism but on representing their respective nations. Michaela Green, a 14-year-old soccer player from London had painted Union Jacks on her cheeks, assuring her team would win gold.

Benjamin Bernstein, from Mexico City, said he's very emotional about representing his country but that the chances his team will win the baseball title are almost zero. "We could be third or maybe even second, if we play with our hearts," the 17-year-old said while walking over the famous Maccabiah bridge, which collapsed in 1997 but was since rebuilt. "But it's clear that the U.S. is going to win."

Sandy Kleinberg, of Rochester, New York, noted the difference of atmosphere between his first Maccabiah in 2001 and today. "We were sitting in the bus and were kind of torn. On one hand we were excited to be in Israel and be greeted by 40,000 cheering fans, but on the other hand the atmosphere was also very tense, because we were told that a terrorist attack had just been foiled. Even as we walked into the stadium, we felt excited and nervous at the same time. This year, it's very different," the 33-year-old volleyballer continued. There is no fear whatsoever, we're just happy and proud of the progress Israel had made in terms of security."

Daniel Indech, who was born in Great Britain but now competes for the United States, is also no newbie. "After I played in my mid-twenties, I retired from my sports for 12 years and thought I'd never play again. But five years ago I started to play again and now I'm here. It's a dream come true, a dream that I never thought I could ever realize."

Other athletes said they were in Israel for the first time. Mexico City resident Tania Jaber, who competes in gymnastics, arrived last Thursday but hasn't seen much of the country yet. "I spent the entire time in the hotel," she said. "We will go touring after my competition is over."

Benjamin Panzer, a swimmer from Vienna, already managed to visit Jerusalem's Old City and a kibbutz. "It's completely different from everything I've ever seen, and I mean this in a good way," he said. "It's a great feeling to be part of something so big."

Asked how he estimated his chances of winning gold, the 19-year-old responded: "Bad. I'm swimming against [Olympic gold medalist Jason] Lezak. I'm just here to have fun."