President Reuven Rivlin is used to receiving applause when he enters the large reception hall to address the various groups who come to the President’s Residence, but seldom does he get the cheers and sustained ovation that he received not once, not twice but three times from heads of the Maccabi World Union and leaders of delegations to the 20th Maccabiah Games that were first-time participants.
Indeed, a stranger hearing the cheers, whistles and hand clapping might have mistaken the president for a rock star.
The atmosphere in the packed hall was one of happiness and joy, but as loud as the applause was for Rivlin, it did not equal that which followed a medley of songs about Jerusalem performed by a group of immigrant children from Ethiopia who live in the Haruv absorption center in Beersheba.
With the UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem in the forefront of his mind, Rivlin said, “Welcome to Israel, welcome to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel and of the Jewish people around the world” – words that were greeted with loud and extensive applause.
Rivlin emphasized that he was welcoming his guests not only as the president of Israel but as a seventh-generation Jerusalemite whose forebears in Lithuania were instructed by the Vilna Gaon to settle in the holy city.
Rivlin said he was happy to be celebrating “with you brothers and sisters and delegations from 80 countries.” Sport always makes people come together, he said, noting that strangers can support the same team in a soccer game, a tennis match or a judo competition.
Sport, said Rivlin, “best symbolizes the world we want – a world in which to be part of the game, means to play by the rules.”
Jews know that it is not always easy to play sports, said Rivlin, adding that even now Jews and people of color are sometimes victims of racism in sport, though as far as he’s concerned “sport and politics do not mix.”
The Maccabiah, he said, is against racism and hatred. “It is a victory of the human spirit over the limits of the body.
“We can argue and disagree, but we are one family and no one can create a rift between us,” he said, apparently referring to the deepening rift between Israel and non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry.
Rivlin concluded his speech by honoring the memories of the members of the Israeli Olympic team who were murdered during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Some of them, he said, had previously competed in the Maccabiah Games.
Eyal Tiberger, executive director of the Maccabi World Union, who was the moderator of the event, enthused that the first Maccabiah Games had been held 85 years ago and that the present Maccabiah had more games than the Olympics and more matches than the World Cup.
The first Maccabi sports association was founded in Helsinki 110 years ago and coincidentally, Leo Dan Bensky, president of the World Maccabi Union, comes from Finland.
Bensky said that he and Rivlin had something in common: whereas Rivlin is a seventh- generation Jerusalemite, Bensky is the fifth generation of his family to be born in Finland, “but my great grandfather came from Vilna, so we might be cousins.”
Without the support of the president, the government and the people of Israel, who put so much effort into the Maccabiah, Bensky said he doubted that the event would be as successful as had proven to be.
On a personal note, he said that it was always very special for him to visit Jerusalem, but more so this time because his wife, who is seriously ill, urged him to come, even though he had wanted to stay with her.
So he went to the Western Wall and put a note into a crevice asking for her recovery. He was photographed doing so, and she was very happy after he sent her the photo, he said.
Among those in attendance at the event were Olympic gold medalists Jason Lezak and Lenny Krayzelburg.
Lezak said that he had the opportunity to come to the Maccabiah Games in 2009 and had to choose between the Maccabiah and the World Championships. It was a difficult choice, he said, but he knew that as a kid he had wanted to come to Israel, and had therefore decided to give up the World Championships.
His experience in Israel was one that he took to heart. He met then-president Shimon Peres, and took his Jewish experience to another level. “Now I was a Jewish athlete competing with other Jewish athletes,” he said. “And for most Jewish athletes, this is the Olympics.”
The 20th Maccabiah has brought together the largest and smallest teams. The American team of almost 1,200 is bigger than the American Olympic team that went to Rio, declared Tiberger. But there were also small teams of only one person, such as the Barbados golf team, whose representative is actually a knight – Sir Paul Asman.
Other first-time teams of only one or two people came from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Honduras, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico and Suriname.
Bolivia sent a five-member team, which included a set of triplets: Esther, Jacob and Leah Haya Mikhaelov Olender, who are all playing in the junior tennis doubles for 15- to 18-year-olds.