The 21st Maccabiah Games, known as the “Jewish Olympics,” are set to take place in Israel on July 12-26, with venues in Jerusalem, Haifa and Netanya. About 10,000 athletes from 80 countries competing in the quadrennial event will participate in 42 sporting events watched by tens of thousands of spectators. The rich history of the Maccabiah Games, the Maccabi World Union, and Kfar Maccabiah date back to pre-state times. The Media Line spoke with Maccabi World Union’s Amir Gissin in the final days before this year’s largest sporting event in the world.
TML: Amir Gissin is the incoming CEO of Maccabi World Union, the largest sporting event this year the world over. By any means, a sporting event of this nature is a tremendous job, it’s huge, [and] the numbers are at about 10,000 athletes. Where are we today in terms of who’s coming?
Gissin: The Maccabiah is probably the most important event in the Jewish calendar, at least for us in terms of the number of participants. Not only are we going to have 10,000 athletes, which is almost the number of athletes that competed at the Tokyo Olympics (in 2021), which had 11,000, so we run 90% Olympic Games. Many people are coming to Israel with them, especially after three years of the coronavirus where Jews from all over the world could not visit their second home in Israel. All of a sudden, this mass of visitors from the Jewish world is going to join us, and this is quite an exciting event. We’re looking forward to it. As you can imagine, this is a great logistical challenge. The opening ceremony is just 10 days away, and we can’t wait.
TML: The breakdown of the people that are participating?
Gissin: Out of the 10,000 athletes, we have around 3,000 from Israel. The largest delegation we have from abroad is obviously the US delegation. It’s worth mentioning that the US delegation to the Maccabiah, which is 1,400 athletes, is larger than the US delegation to the Tokyo Olympics. It’s a huge delegation. The second-largest delegation is Argentina with 800 participants, and we all know the economic difficulties in Argentina these days. The fact that so many people are coming just demonstrates the commitment of this community to Israel, to Maccabi and to the Maccabiah Games. The Canadian delegation is the third largest. We have many large delegations. And also, many small delegations. All in all, over 60 delegations, also from places like Cuba, Venezuela and, obviously, Ukraine – no less important.
TML: Joseph Yekutieli was only 15 years old when he came up with the concept for the Maccabiah Games, and that was really an offshoot of what was happening in Stockholm and the Olympics at that time, 1912. What’s happened since? When was it actually created?
Gissin: We’re talking about an event that happened 90 years ago. The 1st Maccabiah happened 90 years ago. It’s never stopped; the only time it stopped was during the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust. I think that the Jewish people at that time, with a difficult history, with antisemitism, needed a change of direction. And the concept of trying to develop the sports culture and a healthy mind in a healthy body approach had its followers and it began to develop 90 years ago until today. And today we see the strength of this concept in the fact that sports in general but also among the Jewish people is a uniting force. Many times in the Jewish world we see dividing forces, but Maccabi and sports is a uniting force, and to experience personally the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah with 40,000 people in the stadium celebrating their Judaism and their connection to Israel and sports, I think this is a once in a lifetime experience.
"Many times in the Jewish world we see dividing forces, but Maccabi and sports is a uniting force, and to experience personally the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah with 40,000 people in the stadium celebrating their Judaism and their connection to Israel and sports, I think this is a once in a lifetime experience."Maccabi World Union deputy CEO Amir Gissin
TML: Many have written about the fact that in the early days there were Jews that were trying to immigrate, and some of those that participated in sports used the opportunity because the British authorities were not allowing them to come to Israel. Can you share anything about that period?
Gissin: Before the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews from all over the world looked for ways to leave the places where they were and to come to Israel. As Zionists, some of them were doing it out of conviction, some of them just needed to run away from oppressive regimes and countries and places, and we have numerous stories of people that used their participation in the Maccabiah as a way to get to Israel. And today they are part of the movement’s history, they’re part of our activities, and we do our utmost to remember all the Maccabi members who perished in the Holocaust and those who managed to run away with the help of Maccabi through sports and get to Israel. And many of those stories are part of the new World Jewish Sports Museum that we are about to open here, in this building in Kfar Maccabiah, immediately after the Games.
TML: It begs the question of whether some of these young athletes are inspired to live in Israel. Do you see any of them coming to stay?
Gissin: Certainly. In every Maccabiah, at any time, you have a significant group of athletes, from many countries, that following the Maccabiah make the choice of remaining in Israel and making aliyah. I think the most famous one is Tal Brody, one of the basketball legends of the State of Israel, a name everybody in Israel, and probably in the United States, knows. A person who came to play with the American team in the Maccabiah, and after this experience chose to give up a promising career in the NBA and come to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. He was the captain of Maccabi Tel Aviv [in 1977], when for the first time in history they won the championship of European basketball.
TML: There are great challenges around creating, [and] putting together an event of this enormity. It’s huge. Tell me a little about the logistics of how long it takes to put this together? It only happens every four years.
Gissin: The truth of the matter is that the work of the next Maccabiah starts one day after the current Maccabiah is over. To operate a sporting event with 10,000 athletes is a huge logistical challenge. We’re talking about, just as an example, two million water bottles. It means we have 400 workers to get to their places every day during the Maccabiah, from referees in sporting events [to] security, health, transportation, [and] logistics in general. A great challenge, but the beauty of it is that we have a very dedicated team that runs it together. This is the third Maccabiah that they’re working together. The top echelon of the Maccabiah is a team that knows each other very well, and they don’t look at doing the Maccabiah as a job. It’s not a job for them. It’s their family, it’s their home, it’s something they feel very strongly ideologically about, and they’re all graduates of the Maccabi movement.
TML: How many people work full-time after the events are over?
Gissin: The core team of the Maccabiah between the Games is between 10 and 20 people, the leaders of the operation. As we come closer to the event, we bring in more and more people until we get to the number of 400 people that operate the Maccabiah. Some of them are here in Kfar Maccabiah at headquarters; some of them are in the different hotels and sporting events. This is a huge operation, not something that you see in Israel every day.
TML: Are there any new sports events that are starting this year?
Gissin: Well, we have paddle ball, a new sport that is like a very hectic combination of tennis and squash. We have several swimming events which are exhibition events. Swimming is certainly not a new sport, but we will see many Olympic medalists, Olympic gold medalists, participating from the US together with Israeli leading swimmers. I think all in all it will be very interesting. One thing worth mentioning: The one sport where I believe the level of the teams is highest compared to the world is ice hockey. That’s going to be one of the most popular events that we’re going to run in the Maccabiah. It’s going to happen at the Teddy Arena in Jerusalem, and we expect a full house of over 10,000 spectators.
TML: Just the opening and closing is a full-time operation. Can you share a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes?
Gissin: Well, the truth of the matter is that we have been engaged for quite a while now with the message that we got from the White House that during the upcoming visit of President Biden to Israel, which happens to be at the same time, they are considering different alternatives for connecting with the Maccabiah that obviously create on the one hand quite a good logistical challenge for us. On the other hand, we see that as a great vote of confidence and we really look forward to hearing and seeing whether it will happen and what will be the connection. We’re hopeful that it will be significant involvement of the White House and the president in the Maccabiah, and I will just say that this is the ultimate vote of respect and recognition of the importance of the Maccabi movement and the Maccabiah in the life of the Jewish people.
TML: How does it change the operations if President Biden says today he’s coming?
Gissin: Well, I will not go into details, I’ll just say that anything which is connected to security and transportation will have to be totally revised. For instance, just to bring the athletes to Jerusalem from the many hotels they are in around Israel – we’re talking about over 200 buses – we need to make sure that those buses will not be late [for] the opening ceremony because the athletes need to participate in the inaugural parade. So, they will obviously need to come earlier because Jerusalem is not going to be an easy place to navigate that day.
TML: The Games go far beyond the idea of just coming to Israel. There are educational components. Can you take me through a day in the life of an athlete coming, whether from the United States, Canada or around the world?
Gissin: Maccabi is not an organization of professional athletes. Most Maccabi members just enjoy the fact that they can do sports in a Jewish environment. Many of them are unaffiliated; they’re not part of the organized Jewish community. This is their way to remain Jewish and [being] active in a Jewish environment. They are important to us. We do our utmost to develop their relationship with Israel through the Maccabi movement. We encourage them to be a part of the activities of the Jewish communities all around the world, and we try very hard to make sure that it will not be just the Maccabiah for two weeks and then four years of anticipation until the next event. We try to bring youngsters through our Israel Programs Department to Israel in youth groups. We’re developing relationships through our sister movement, the JCC Association, to connect and bring educational Israel activities and sporting activities into the JCCs all over North America and JCC Global in other places. I think the bottom line is that our huge membership is for us just a springboard to reach out to many Jewish communities in cities around the world and to make sure that they are aware of the ability to do sports in a Jewish environment and to be exposed to educational programs in the systems and the different clubs and organizations of Maccabi all over.
TML: Politics place a very vital role in Israel. Can the Maccabi Games stay away from politics when it comes to the sporting events and everything that surrounds what the Maccabiah is supposed to stand for?
Gissin: We’ve been very successful with keeping politics out until now, and there’s no reason we will not continue to be successful. I have to say that all parties, and all governments, always supported the Maccabiah, because everybody understands that this is probably one of the most effective tools to maintain the special relationship between Israel and Jewish communities all over the world.
"We’ve been very successful with keeping politics out until now, and there’s no reason we will not continue to be successful."Maccabi World Union deputy CEO Amir Gissin
TML: There is a noticeable increase of Jewish names within the Olympics. Over the years you had some of the high-profile players come. Who’s attending this year?
Gissin: This year we have several Olympic gold medalists from the United States. I will not mention everybody, I’ll just mention a couple, [swimmers] Lenny Krayzelburg and Jason Lezak. The beauty of the Maccabiah is that we’re not playing the stars game. The beauty of the Maccabiah is that everybody can take part, everybody can participate, everybody’s doing their utmost, but it’s not just a sporting experience, it’s an emotional experience, of all the Jewish people coming together in Israel. So, the Maccabiah is more than a sports competition. It’s a huge homecoming experience.
TML: You mention the opening of the museum. When is it slated to do so, and can we get a peek?
Gissin: Certainly. I’ll be very happy to take you around. The museum is ready. It will probably open to the public in the course of the next two months. We still need to go through the Maccabiah first. Then our attention will move into the museum. We hope to see tens of thousands of Israelis and Jewish people from all around the world coming to visit the museum. It’s important to say that this is the World Jewish Sports Museum, it’s not just the Maccabi museum. All Jewish sports organizations are represented there. All Jewish and Israeli athletes appear here. We just felt that such a museum was missing from the arena of Israeli museums, and we’re very happy that now we will be able to fill this void.
TML: Amir, you are taking up the reins of running this big operation. What’s your vision for the next few years?
Gissin: I’m a branding guy. I come from the field of branding. Many times, there is a feeling that we don’t own our brand. Everybody has heard of Maccabi. Maccabi is Jewish sports. But not many people know that Maccabi World Union is behind the Maccabi organization and the Maccabiah Games. Our message of unity for the Jewish people needs to be heard in a stronger way. We are in a position to cooperate with many international sports organizations, from the Bundesliga to the NBA. That’s my vision. This is where I’m going. I want to put Maccabi World Union in its rightful place as a world-leading sports organization, both in terms of numbers and in terms of relationships and connections. This is where I want to take this organization and, obviously, the Maccabiah Games is a great springboard to start this journey.
"Everybody has heard of Maccabi. Maccabi is Jewish sports."Maccabi World Union deputy CEO Amir Gissin
TML: Do you envision young students in Israel coming to the museum on trips and this becoming a part of their learning experience.
Gissin: Definitely, definitely. Sport has a huge place in the life of young people. Engaging with sports is one thing, but understanding the place of sports in wellness, in society, at a young age, I think it’s very, very important. That’s the message of our movement. In Hebrew we say, Nefesh bari beguf bari, (“A healthy mind in a healthy body,”) and this is what we want to teach the youngsters.
TML: Amir Gissin, CEO of Maccabi World Union, thanks so much for the interview and for your time. Best of luck on the exciting Maccabiah Games. We’ll be following what happens over the two weeks of the Maccabiah.
Gissin: Thank you, Felice.
What's it like in Kfar Maccabiah?
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson toured the Maccabiah village complex, the home base for this year's participating athletes and for the union’s year-round operations. The Media Line also was given a sneak preview of the new World Jewish Sport Museum.
TML: The Maccabiah Games are finally here, COVID, they say, might be gone; I’m not so sure. What do you say on this amazing day, when you have thousands already here for these amazing Games?
Gissin: It is difficult for me to hide my huge excitement. It’s a big day for us. It’s happening. I remind us all that the Maccabiah was postponed because the Olympics were postponed, and we always do the Maccabiah one year after the Olympics to allow all the Israeli, American, Canadian and other athletes that participate in the Olympics to come also to the Maccabiah. So, it’s been five years since the last Maccabiah, and this Maccabiah is the largest ever, [with] over 10,000 athletes. Just for comparison, in Tokyo there were 11,000 athletes, so we run a 90% Olympics. Obviously, the sporting level is very different, but the logistical, security and health operations needed here are the same. It’s interesting to say that cities host the Olympics at best, like Paris and London, once every 30 years. We have the Maccabiah here every four years. Everything starts here, in Kfar Maccabiah, the beating heart of the Maccabi movement. The Maccabi movement is the largest Jewish organization, with close to half a million members in more than 60 countries. It all combines together members of the Jewish faith who like sports and who are dealing with sports on an amateur basis. For them, and for us, the main event, the one thing that everybody is waiting for, is the Maccabiah Games here in Israel.
TML: If you could share a little bit about the whole Kfar Maccabiah, the village itself, when it began, and the vision. I mean there’s a hotel associated, there’s a sporting facility associated here.
Gissin: Actually, in a panoramic view, this is the beating heart, Maccabi House, which was just opened a few months ago. This is where Maccabi World Union, Maccabi Israel and the newly opened Jewish Sports Museum are located. What you can see here is our conference center, a hotel. On one side we have the business suites. On the other are the places where the groups, the Jewish youngsters’ groups that we bring from all over the world, this is where they’re staying. We have three event halls, we have a country club − a sports club which is the biggest in Israel. All in all, this is a 20-acre great facility for everything. But what’s unique about it is that it’s not just a tourist facility, a sports facility, this is home. This is home [to] half a million Jews who are engaged with Maccabi groups all over the world. They know the place, they have been here, and it’s alive. Maccabi is not a business, Maccabi is something of the heart. We are a nonprofit; we are a movement that puts first a healthy lifestyle, community and love for Israel.
Gissin: The hotel takes around 700 people during the Games. Traditionally only the US delegation, that’s a tradition. And even that is not enough, because the US delegation, which is the largest delegation that came from abroad out of the 60 delegations. It has 1,400 athletes. This is a huge number. The US delegation to Maccabiah is way bigger than the US delegation to Tokyo. It’s obviously quite a logistical experience to have them. They have a few surprises there, several Olympic gold medalists, especially in swimming, that joined the US Maccabiah delegation and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do in the pool.
Gissin: The Maccabiah is not concentrated in one place. Kfar Maccabiah is obviously somewhat like the Olympic village, but the sporting events are happening all over Israel. The main centers are Haifa, where we’re going to have the Junior Maccabiah, 2,500 athletes from 60 countries between the ages of 15 and 18. They’re not just going to compete in sports, they’re also going to have a very thorough educational program. For us it’s a great opportunity to connect them to the Maccabi movement, to its values, to Judaism, to the connection with Israeli peers who are going to be there as well. So that’s happening in Haifa. We have a lot of activities in Jerusalem. We have a lot, a lot of activities in the Tel Aviv area, and in Netanya.
TML: How are the youth chosen?
Gissin: Based on their athletic skills.
TML: But who decides?
Gissin: There are tryouts all over the States, all over Canada where Jewish teens who know about the Maccabiah, who know the dates, they come, they show what they know. They try to become a member of the ice hockey team or they compete in athletics or in swimming and so on, and the best are coming. In other countries, to be honest, not everybody is being judged on their level, because if we have delegations from Cuba, Venezuela or from Ukraine, the most important thing is participation. For us, the line is, if you’re Jewish, if you define yourself as Jewish and you want to be here, we don’t stop you.
TML: Since you brought up Ukraine, are there participants from Ukraine?
Gissin: There is a significant delegation from Ukraine. As a matter of fact, Maccabi Europe, the association of Maccabi clubs in Europe, has been working under the radar for several months to help Ukrainian Maccabi members to participate in the Maccabiah, to come safely out of Ukraine. They came to Israel several months ago. We are taking care of everything they need, so they can have a clear mind, train, and prepare for the Maccabiah. They are going to have a significant delegation, and I am sure that the cheers that they are going to get at the opening ceremony will be second to none.
TML: Nice. How many are there?
Gissin: I’m not sure. I think 50.
Gissin: We are in the largest sports club in Israel. It has three swimming pools, 25 tennis courts, three basketball halls. This is the home for the Maccabi movement when it comes to sport. The potential of this place, being near to the Safari Zoological Center and the National Park in Ramat Gan, is enormous. For many years it was a secluded area. We’re now thinking about ways to open it to the public, to let the public come in. We are thinking about building an ice hockey arena here, Olympic sized, we’re thinking about building another swimming pool, Olympic sized. We want to use this real estate of 20 acres in the best possible way, for the Maccabi movement and the people of Ramat Gan where we are located.
TML: What is padel?
Gissin: Padel tennis is a new sport. It came to us from South America. As you can see, it’s a weird combination of tennis and squash. The idea is that while playing, you can use the walls. It’s a much faster game, it’s like squash on steroids and it’s becoming very popular in Israel. There are a few places where it’s played; this is one of the biggest. I’m really surprised that it’s empty right now because it’s almost 24/7. That’s just an example of how we’re trying to use the space that we have to develop [the] sport in Israel, to push things forward because we have the capacity, we have the capability. Padel is going to be a sport in the Maccabiah. It will be very interesting to see what the scores will be and which direction it’s going to go.
TML: Whose land was this originally?
Gissin: This was private land … the place for the people who came to the 2nd Maccabiah, I think, to be their “Olympic village.” It’s a mixture between nonprofit and for-profit. But I think all in all everything is around NIS 100 million a year. The Maccabiah itself is an event of over NIS 120 million.
TML: So over $30 million.
Gissin: So, a lot of government help. The participants themselves, at least those who can afford it, pay for their participation. Many countries and delegations that cannot afford it get subsidies from us. This is a good opportunity to say that the government of Israel, every government of Israel, has been there for us and helped us to make this event because everybody understands that this is probably not just the largest but the most pride-creating opportunity for Jews all over the world to come together.
Gissin: Now we are at the World Jewish Sports Museum. It’s not open to the public yet. I think it will be open after the Maccabiah. Just to give you a little bit of an idea about what the World Jewish Sports Museum is, I’ll tell you a story. What you can see here is a sword, a fencing sword. It’s actually a tale of two swords. It was 1895 when modern antisemitism was created, was born, in the ceremony where Alfred Dreyfus was dismissed from the French army in disgrace. That day they actually broke his sword; that was the ceremony. We all know the story of how that event influenced Theodor Herzl and how that moved forward the creation of Zionism and of the State of Israel. What most people don’t know is that by a miraculous coincidence, on the same day back in 1895, the first-ever Maccabi club was established. It happened in Istanbul, and it was a fencing club. On the same day where one sword was broken, another sword started a tradition that has continued for more than 125 years of Jewish sports, of Jews standing up for themselves. And what you can see here is the original sword that was owned by one of the founders of the club. His grandson contributed this historic piece to this museum. So, Maccabi Istanbul fencing in 1895, the beginning of Jews standing up for themselves through sport. That was actually the first Jewish sports club in the world.
"On the same day where one sword was broken, another sword started a tradition that has continued for more than 125 years of Jewish sports, of Jews standing up for themselves."Maccabi World Union deputy CEO Amir Gissin
TML: This is the first glance at the museum before it opens. When is the opening?
Gissin: The opening will be sometime in September or October. What you can see here is the famous book of Hakoah Vienna, one of the first Jewish sports clubs in the world, and still the most prestigious one. Their soccer team won the championship of Austria in the early 1900s, and still today they are remembered as one of the leading soccer clubs in Europe during those years. We received as a donation the golden book of Hakoah Vienna. Inside these pages, you have the stories of all the great athletes that played for the club. Many of them perished in the Holocaust.
TML: And the medals here, what is this?
Gissin: We call it the ‘waterfall of medals.’ Medals from dozens of Maccabiah Games, regional Maccabi Games and Maccabi competitions of the last hundred years. As you see, the museum is organized in chronological order. And it’s no surprise that there is an abrupt gap [between] the track and field, and an empty wall because those were the years of the Holocaust when obviously Maccabiahs didn’t take place. There are many stories of Maccabi members in Europe that helped each other. Some of them were Olympians, some of them were leaders in their community. Many of them perished, but those who survived continued the sports tradition. For us, this gap in the track and field presentation symbolizes our commitment to the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust from Maccabi.
Gissin: After the Holocaust, and the War of Independence, and the creation of the State of Israel in ’48, after a very long gap in the Maccabiah, the 3rd Maccabiah took place in Israel in 1950. It was a small, modest event, but with tremendous power and symbolism for the Jewish people, the re-creation of the Maccabiah tradition in the State of Israel. Among the participants was my father. That was 70 years ago. He was young, he played on the Israeli team at the Maccabiah in field hockey. This is the stick he used. Out of the 11 team members, six were from my family, and they won the gold medal, beating India in the final.
TML: You have personal pride.
Gissin: Yes, personal pride. It’s family.
TML: Very nice. Very nice.
Gissin: So, this is where the museum tour ends, with a re-creation very close to [the] reality of the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah which is actually going to take place in Jerusalem soon. The groups that come here will experience the sights and sounds and the atmosphere. And they’ll see on the huge screen the greatest stories of Jewish athletes from Israel and from all around the world. We would like to create this experience for them even if they can’t be at the opening ceremony, which is going to be, I believe, a very moving event with many dignitaries. We are very much looking forward to it.
TML: So, this is the “Israeli floor” of Maccabi House.
Gissin: We’re standing now in the offices of Maccabi Israel. It’s one of the more significant sporting organizations in Israel. Around 150,000 athletes, from Maccabi Tel Aviv that everybody knows, to Maccabi Haifa, to a women’s basketball team in almost every city in Israel. And the 150,000 Israeli athletes are very well connected through Maccabi World Union to the 300,000 Jewish athletes abroad. Because Maccabi is a place where you are a member − it doesn’t matter if you an Israeli, or Jewish living abroad, we’re connected. It’s one movement, it’s one very large family.
The Media Line spoke briefly with a few of the athletes.
TML: What brings you to the Maccabiah?
Jordan Brail: To be part of an amazing competition with Jews from all over the world, and I’m here to win gold.
TML: What athletic prowess do you have?
Brail: I’m a professional squash player, and I was captain of Cornell University’s varsity squash team.
TML: First time in Israel?
Brail: Fourth time.
TML: First time in the Maccabiah?
Brail: I was in the Maccabiah Games in 2013. I played in the Junior squash tournament.
Max Rothman: I’m also here to also win gold. I’ve been playing padel for the last couple of years. I’m a former tennis player so I’m excited to be here [trying] to bring it home for the USA.
TML: Have you been to Israel before?
Rothman: I’ve been to Israel three times. This is my third time.
TML: The first time in the Maccabiah?
Rothman: I played in 2010, in Junior tennis back in Baltimore, so it’s been a while. I’m excited to be here for the World Games.
Sophie Gerber: I’m Sophie Gerber from Scottsdale, Arizona and I go to the University of Colorado. I’m at the Maccabi Games to compete in basketball against other Jewish athletes and to meet a lot of people from around the world.
TML: Had you been to Israel?
Gerber: I’ve never been to Israel. This is my first time.
Jaclyn Feit: Hi, I’m Jaclyn Feit. I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. I play basketball at Franklin & Marshall College and I’m playing in the Maccabi Games just so I can play against really good Jewish student-athletes and meet a bunch of people from all over. This is my second time in Israel. I was here when I was really young. So yes, I’m excited.