The 19th quadrennial Maccabiah Games started in grand fashion at Teddy Kollek Stadium Thursday night, bolstered by tens of thousands of enthusiastic spectators, and more than 9,000 of the most talented Jewish athletes in the world.

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Also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” the Maccabiah Games is the largest international Jewish athletic competition. This year’s event is considered the biggest of all time, attracting some 30,000 spectators and athletes from over 70 countries.

The opening ceremony – attended by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and a number of international dignitaries – included the traditional athletes’ march, the lighting of the Maccabiah torch, the swearing-in ceremony led by Israeli athlete Alex Shatilov and live performances by local and internationally renowned artists.

“We have come from different places, but we belong to the same family,” said Peres.

“A family whose face is always turned towards Jerusalem, the eternal capital of our people, the capital of justice and peace.”

In a video message from the United States, President Barack Obama hailed the “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel. “In that spirit, I want to wish my good friend President Shimon Peres a very happy 90th birthday,” Obama said. “He’s an example of vitality and dedication to all of us, his legacy embodies the essence of these games.”

In his opening remarks, Netanyahu also welcomed the athletes to “Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel. “It’s the first time that the Maccabiah is not only opening in Jerusalem, but many of the games are also taking place in Jerusalem, our indivisible capital,” he said. “Year after year, Jews from around the world say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ but today, all of those who came here for the 19th Maccabiah Games can say, ‘This year in Jerusalem,’ Israel’s undivided capital.”

“We are all one nation. We are all the nation of Israel,” Netanyahu added. “The Maccabiah represents the spirit of unity of the Jewish people... Go out, visit Israel, this is your country. I will be very happy if many of you decide to make aliya and become part of the Zionist enterprise. Am Yisrael Hai [The nation of Israel lives].”

Musicians including Rami Kleinstein, one of Israel’s most respected composers, Grammy Award-winning violinist Miri Ben Ari, X-Factor USA finalist Carly Rose Sonenclar, and Canadian-born singer and winner of The Voice-Israel Kathleen Reiter, were among the performers.

Fans in attendance for the 8:00 p.m. opening ceremony expressed pride over the thousands of Jewish athletes from all corners of the globe – including Cuba and Australia – who came to Jerusalem for the prestigious games.

“We feel very proud because many Jewish athletes from around the world came to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel,” said Moshe Mizrahi. “It makes me proud to be Jewish and born in Jerusalem.”

Sherman and Melody Rosenfeld of Rehovot brought their son Ashi and granddaughter Liora to attend the opening ceremony.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that Jerusalem is having such a significant sporting event,” said Sherman. “We just came out of Tisha Be’av, which is a very sad period, and this is a happy period, so that’s great.”

Melody said she had great respect for the Maccabiah, dating back to the Holocaust, when Jewish swimmers were able to flee Nazi Germany by participating in the games in Mandate Palestine.

“It makes us feel very proud to be from Israel,” she said.

“We usually don’t think about sports in terms of Judaism, but this shows we’re inclusive by including Jews of all degrees of observance. The common denominator here is that all Jews are welcome.”

Shauli Daon – a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry from Tel Aviv who came to the ceremony with his girlfriend – described the games as important in terms of showing visitors who have never been to Jerusalem the beauty of an often misunderstood capital.

“It’s very important because people from all over the world are coming to Jerusalem and they’re seeing that there’s not much danger here – that it’s safe, that it’s okay,” said Daon.

To prepare for the opening ceremony, Israeli Police implemented exhaustive security measures, including several thousand police officers to secure the area in and around the stadium at all times.

According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, a breadth of specialized units – including undercover officers, patrol units and instant response teams – will be on hand for the duration of the games.

Lior Laub said he drove two and- a-half hours from Karmiel to see the opening ceremony.

“It’s exciting that all the Jews from around the world are coming to Israel – that sport brought everyone together,” he said. “There is pride because there’s nothing like this. In fact, I believe that people coming here from other countries are even more excited than me.”

Indeed, Steve and Karen Weisz of Toronto, said they were elated to fly here with their two youngest children to cheer on their 17-year-old son Matthew, who is participating in the under 19 basketball team.

“It’s just great to be here and be part of such an important event,” said Steve. “I’m especially happy because my father, who survived the Holocaust, came as well to support Matthew, and it’s only his second time ever coming to Israel.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has successfully overseen a number of international sporting competitions, including the European U-21 Soccer Championship and the Formula 1 “Peace Road Show,” as well as the addition of 12,000 seats to the stadium, said he is delighted the capital continues to host major sporting events.

“Jerusalem is going through a big sports moment right now,” he said. “From the beginning of my term as mayor, I have placed sports and culture as a major priority.

It’s important for Jerusalem to be the center of gravity in Israel – a city that represents the deep connection between Jews all over the world.”

Numerous Olympic-gold medalists, world champions, and world-record holders have competed in the Maccabiah Games, including, Mark Spitz, Mitch Gaylord, Lenny Krayzelburg, Jason Lezak and Marilyn Ramenofsky.

Traditionally held in Tel Aviv, this year Jerusalem is hosting all three of the game’s main events, including Thursday’s opening ceremony, the Youth Event at the Sultan’s Pool on July 25 and the closing celebration on July 30. The Maccabiah Games were last held in Jerusalem in 2001.

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