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Even the global economic crisis won't prevent the largest ever number of athletes in the history of the Maccabiah to make it to Israel this summer.

maccabiah 88 (photo credit: Maccabi World Union)
maccabiah 88
(photo credit: Maccabi World Union)
From Germany to Guatemala, South Africa to Spain, the United States to the United Kingdom, more than 5,000 international Jewish athletes have been descending on Israel this week for what is claimed by the organizers to be the third largest sporting event in the world. Considering the grand scale of this 18th Maccabiah Games, it can be difficult to imagine that the event's very existence was threatened only eight years ago, when a lack of participants due to the increase in terrorism during the second Intifada made some organizers consider cancelling the 16th Maccabiah altogether. But, in an illustration of the resilience of the Jewish people, the 2001 Games went ahead with a much smaller number of athletes than usual. Four years later the 17th Maccabiah was seen as a triumphant return for the so-called Jewish Olympics and now the brand is stronger than ever. Even the global economic crisis couldn't prevent the largest ever number of athletes in the 77-year history of the Maccabiah pulling out all the stops to make it to Israel this summer. While all of the athletes will be preparing for Monday evening's opening ceremony at National Stadium in Ramat Gan, the fact that many of the competitions will have already begun a day earlier illustrates the dual nature of the Games. The sporting events are the main focus of each and every athlete here for the Maccabiah, but the opening ceremony can be seen as a centerpiece of the event, the chance to feel a part of the enormity of the Games and march alongside 7,000 Jewish athletes (including the 2,000 members of Team Israel) in a tremendous display of unity. As usual it will be one of the highlights of the participants' stay in this country, a spectacular show featuring fireworks, dancers and quintessential Israeli singer Shiri Maimon. The Maccabiah is a strange creature, a sporting event which melds athletic endeavors with social bonding. Unlike at the Olympics or World Cup, the athletes will most definitely not be sticking to their hotels and training camps in between competitions. For many participants, such as Team USA's Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Jason Lezak, this will be their first time in the country - and they will likely take the opportunity to travel as much as they can. Numerous tours and events have been planned in order to show off the best Israel has to offer. The opening ceremony will be an excellent start for those wanting to understand a little about Israeli culture - Maimon became a star in Israel after coming second in the 2003 series of Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), the local version of American Idol, and has since become one of the most popular artists in the country. Although we are delighted to welcome the thousands of people from all over the world who have come to play in the Games, this year the Maccabiah is not only for the athletes. A new innovation called the Popular Maccabiah will launch on Friday on five of Israel's most popular beaches in an effort to get as many people as possible involved. From Nahariya in the north to Ashdod and Ashkelon in the south, numerous activities including beach volleyball, beach futsal and even kite making will be on offer. This move to bring the Maccabiah to the masses must be applauded. All too often the Games have been largely ignored by the local population. On the one hand this is understandable - the Maccabiah is more of a display of Jewish unity - an innate feature of our society - than a professional sporting event. But there is much to celebrate, from the Zionist aspect to the prospect of many entertaining sporting contests, and Israelis should appreciate what they have on their own doorsteps. With the countdown almost over, it is now up to the Maccabiah athletes to put on a show which will be etched in our collective memory for many years. jeremy@jpost.com