U.S. Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak lit the torch at the opening ceremonies of the 18th Maccabiah Games.
More than 5,000 athletes participated in Monday night’s ceremony, which came more than a day after the start of sports competitions throughout Israel.
“I thank you for coming, I thank you for participating, but I ask you to do one more thing,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to the athletes. “I ask that you make aliyah, not just for the Maccabiah. Come and be one of us, every day of the year.”
The ceremony at the Ramat Gan Stadium featured singers, dancers, fireworks and an athletes’ procession.
Joshua Small, 19, a tenpin bowler from Australia and the son of an Australian athlete who died in the 1997 bridge collapse over the Yarkon River during the opening ceremonies of the 15th Maccabiah Games, recited the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead.
Activists working for the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit had tried at the last minute to have Maccabiah participants wear a yellow ribbon at the ceremony in a call for his release. The large American and British delegations had agreed to the idea, but the organizing committee decided not to sign on to the initiative, according to Ha’aretz.
“With all due respect, we can’t take a ceremony that we’ve worked on for the past two weeks and change it to fit what the Shalit forum wants,” Yaron Michaeli, spokesman for the Maccabiah’s organizing committee, told Ha’aretz.
Shalit was invoked in the opening address.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reported Monday that only half of Israel’s 2,000-member team would march in the opening ceremony due to space constraints.