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Maccabiah Speed Dating?

The Maccabiah, widely dubbed the Jewish Olympics, officially got underway today following last night’s grand opening ceremony at the Ramat Gan Stadium. Americans can be proud that the loudest cheers at the ceremony came when Olympic gold medal swimmer Jason Lezak entered the stadium, and lit the Maccabiah torch.

And if you’re rooting for the States, you are likely to have cause to celebrate.

Almost one in eight athletes competing is American; in other words 950 of the 8,000. Maccabi USA will compete in 28 sports divided among 88 individual teams. The youngest American participant is 15. The oldest is Howard Bromberg from Riverdale, New York, who at 87 is competing in Grand Masters Tennis.

All has not been smooth sailing in the first day of competitions. Israelis are notoriously slipshod about getting the right licenses for events and Maccabiah organizers are apparently no exception. As the Jerusalem Post reports, police canceled a softball game between Israel and Mexico, as well as all further games in the competition because organizers do not have the necessary license.

Nor was the opening ceremony entirely smooth. Haaretz reported that the Maccabiah banned competitors from wearing ribbons to show support for the campaign for Gilad Shalit’s release. One Shalit activist was quoted as saying she believed that Maccabiah organizers did not want to embarrass government officials who attended the ceremony. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who some Israelis claim is not doing enough to secure his release, was in attendance.

It’s interesting talking to Israelis about the Maccabiah. Opinions range from extreme pride that a worldwide sporting event takes place here to complete indifference. Some see it as yet another event for Diaspora Jews with little relevance to them, and some stare blankly when asked about it and say: “What’s the Maccabiah?” Reuters journalist Ori Lewis is convinced that there is hardly any interest at home.

He argues in this blog post that more than it is a serious sporting event, today the Maccabiah is something of “a jamboree for Jewish athletes from all over the world to express solidarity with Israel” and “an event where young Jewish singles get the chance to meet an enormous number of potential future partners in a jovial environment.”

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