The 19th Maccabiah Games opened with a phenomenal flourish at a jam-packed Teddy stadium in Jerusalem on Thursday night in which a dazzling display of lights and breathtaking fireworks set the sky – and all hearts in attendance – aflame.

Jewish pride was the prevalent sentiment as the opening ceremony welcomed more than 9,000 of the finest Jewish athletes as 78 delegations from around the world expressed their joy at being in Israel before an announced crowd of almost 35,000.

The most captivating and symbolic part of the sporting spectacle was the parade of nations, with 22 first-time nations – including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua – garnering the largest applause, outside of the blue-and-white host delegation of a record 2,900 athletes.

It was a rocking, rollicking ceremony that touched on pretty much every aspect of Israeli culture and history, with performances from violinist Miri Ben-Ari, vocalists Rami Kleinstein and Carly Rose Sonenclar and speeches from the top Israeli personalities.

After welcoming the athletes to Israel and back to its “eternal capital", Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, spoke of the significance of the Maccabiah.

“The Maccabiah is an extraordinary event which brings together Jews from across the world,” Netanyahu said. “Only in the Maccabiah can a 13-year-old Jewish swimmer from Brazil meet an 88-year-old Jewish tennis player from South Africa. The Maccabiah reminds us that we are all one people. The Games symbolize the special spirit of our people that overcame every obstacle to found the State of Israel.

“Go out visit Israel; this is your country!” The crackling electricity in the pre-ceremony athletes’ mixer set the tone for the evening, as Jews from all corners of the globe reveled in the opportunity to take pictures and exchange souvenirs with each other.

“The 19th Maccabiah is one of the biggest sporting events in the world,” said Guiora Esrubilsky, President of Maccabi World Union. “The Maccabi World Union arranges sporting events in five continents, the highlight of which is the Maccabiah.

We are on the map and we will stay on the map.”

The newly renovated stadium in Malha was magically transformed into a multicultural melting pot and it seemed only fitting that the South African’s marched with a special banner honoring humanitarian Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday.

When the final torch-bearer, American Olympic-medalist Aly Raisman, ascended to the cauldron to spark the blaze, the roar from the crowd was deafening and a palpable sense of unity permeated throughout the venue.

This was when the final phase of the extravaganza began, featuring a sensational mix of traditional and modern dance troupes replete with rousing gymnastic and acrobatic exhibitions.

The flame will stay lit for the next two weeks as the top Jewish athletes from around the world battle it out in over 40 sports – from futsal to fencing, softball to squash, taekwondo to table tennis.

In his address to the delegations President Shimon Peres commented that “we may come from different places but we all belong to the same family, a family whose face is turned toward Jerusalem, the eternal capital of our people.”

United States President Barack Obama was among the global leader to pre-record messages that were played on the big screen, with Obama noting that the Maccabiah speaks to the “unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States and to the celebration of deep relationship created through sports among nations.”

The evening came to a close with a stirring rendition of Hatikva as Israel popped the cork of what is sure to be an enchanting fortnight.

For schedules and updated information, please visit the official Maccabiah website at www.maccabiah.com

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