Standing below a sky bursting with fireworks, Gloria Suciu says being an athlete at the Maccabiah Games is a world away from competing in her native Europe. Suciu, a tennis player from Cluj, Romania, stood in wonder at being part of a sporting event with so many other Jews.
Some 7,000 athletes from 52 countries are competing in the 17th Maccabiah Games, which opened Monday and run through July 21.
“It’s not about competing with them so much as just being part of it all,” said Suciu, 26.
At the Opening Ceremonies, athletes marched in country by country, some dancing and blowing kisses for cheering onlookers in the stands of Ramat Gan Stadium.
Gal Fridman, who captured Israel’s first Olympic gold medalist in windsurfing at last year’s Olympics, ran through the stadium to a roar of cheers on his way to lighting the torch for the Maccabiah, known as the “Jewish Olympics.”
Many of the spectators became emotional looking down at a field of Jewish athletes at an event considered to be the world’s largest gathering of Jews.
“Your arrival here signifies the bond between all the Jewish communities, with Israel at the center,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said from a bulletproof VIP box. “I hope that by the next Maccabiah you will all make aliyah to the Jewish homeland and be a part of the Israeli delegation.”
Israeli President Moshe Katsav also addressed the athletes, telling them, “The Maccabiah symbolizes our being one people, one large family.”
For Jordan Schlachter, a basketball player for the over-35 U.S. men’s team, being part of the Maccabiah Games is more than being part of a family, it’s about celebrating his new family.
Schlachter came to the Maccabiah fresh from his June 19 wedding to Leslie Carlson, who plays on the U.S. women’s basketball team.
The two met and fell in love in 2003 during the Maccabiah’s Pan-American Games in Chile.
On Tuesday night, after both played their first round of games, they met again on the Tel Aviv beach to have a second wedding ceremony surrounded by their teammates.
“It kind of makes it official. The Maccabiah is such a big part of our lives that we wanted a proper tribute of being married in the State of Israel as well,” said Schlachter, 37.
Schlachter, 6 feet 7 inches tall, played basketball for Harvard University and participated in his first Maccabiah in 1991. His new wife is 6 feet 4 inches.
Schlachter, head of marketing for MTV, said his involvement in the Maccabiah has become a big part of his life.
“It gives me a sense of Jewish identity, of international Jewish identity that I never felt anywhere else before and the chance to meet people with the same passion for sports and the same pride for being Jews,” he said.
Ron Carner, vice president of the Maccabi World Union and Maccabi USA, said the event is unique in using sports to bolster Jewish identity.
“You don’t get these kids here because of culture or identity but because of sports, and then you expose them to Jewish identity. We change a lot of lives,” he said.
Carner also noted the high caliber of athletics at the Games. There are many world-class athletes competing, including Olympic swimmers and fencers on the U.S. teams.
Outside of the stadium, young Israeli boys rushed up to Izzy Goldfein, 35, a member of the South African men’s soccer team. They jostled around him, asking for an autograph. He laughed and obliged, writing in both Hebrew and English.
“This gives us the opportunity to see Jews from all over the world,” Goldfein said. “Without this I never would have seen something like this.”
He said he was awed at the sight of the athletes trading pins and shirts and jackets. Athletes from Italy could be seen wearing Australian shirts and Mexican sombreros.
Miriam Mercado Massri, 16, was excited to be part of her first Maccabiah Games. She had traveled to Israel from Mexico City and is part of the girls’ soccer team. Her father had played for Mexico’s men’s team in past Maccabiahs.
“It feels great, like we are part of a huge family,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many Jewish people in my entire life . . . and they are athletes too. It was so powerful to see, I could never have imagined it to be like this.”
Eylon Gelman, 20, had traveled to Israel from Toronto, where he plays basketball for York University.
He knows Israeli scouts will be in the stands when he plays, and he’s hoping to catch their eye.
“My goal after university is to come play for an Israeli team,” Gelman said.