JERUSALEM -- There's a famous scene in the cult 1980 movie "Airplane!" when a passenger asks the flight attendant for something "light" to read and is handed a one-page leaflet entitled "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." But a week into what is often billed as the Jewish Olympics, it might be time to rewrite the joke.
Taking place every four years, the 19th iteration of the tournament held its opening ceremony for the first time in Jerusalem, bolstering the dream of the holy city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, to rebrand Jerusalem from a place of gray stone and endless conflict into a modern metropolis that fosters sports and culture. The opening event included speeches from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as foreign and local dignitaries.
"This is the largest Maccabiah Games ever, and I am very proud of the fact that we have brought it to Jerusalem for the first time ever," Barkat said in a news conference. "Bringing the games to Jerusalem gives the city the role of being at the center of the Jewish people."
The games, featuring sports in 38 different fields, also aim to introduce young Jewish people from around the world to Israel and Jerusalem. Also included is a soft sell to think about relocating here.
“It is important for all Jewish people to feel like shareholders in this city,” said Barkat. “No matter where you live, Jerusalem is an asset belonging to Jews across the world, and it is open to all people, Jews and non-Jews alike.”
Among those competing in the games is U.S. Olympic swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, who won two gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing in the 4-by-100 medley and freestyle.
“My preparation for these games was at the same level as when I prepared for the Olympics,” Weber-Gale said in an interview. “In 2012, I over-trained and did not make it to the U.S. team for the London Olympics, but I have taken the Maccabiah very seriously and put a lot of emphasis on representing the U.S. here.”
Weber-Gale, who is from Wisconsin and had never been to Israel before the Maccabiah Games, said he was taken by the country and would even consider moving here permanently.
“I have always been dedicated to proving that we [Jews] are good at sports,” he said when asked about the old joke about the small number of great Jewish athletes. “There have been some fantastic Jewish athletes, and these games are a perfect opportunity to prove that.”