From Constantinople to California, from 1825 to Today:
the Merage Jewish Community Center Celebrates the History of the Maccabi Games
This August thousands of volunteers, host families, coaches and teen athletes and artists will converge on Orange County to again integrate athletics and arts with our Jewish history with the Merage JCC’s third hosting of the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest.
Nicknamed the “Jewish Youth Olympics”, the first JCC Maccabi Games (“Games”) were created in 1982. They are a permanent fixture in the annual calendars for Jewish communities across the US, Canada and worldwide.
David Ben-Gurion, First Prime Minister of the State of Israel, said of the original games, “Maccabi is, no doubt, a most important branch of the Zionist movement.”
The JCC Maccabi Games are an innovative modern day addition to an extensive world of Maccabi efforts. They are built on The Maccabiah Games, also known as the “Jewish Olympics”. Held every four years in Israel. The Israel Maccabiah Games attracts Jewish athletes and tens of thousands of people from all over the globe. Today it is the third largest sporting event in world. Only the Olympic Games and Asian Games surpass it in size.
The First Maccabi Games in 1932
Held in Tel Aviv, in Palestine, 390 athletes from 18 countries attended. To recruit for the first Maccabiah, emissaries rode out from Palestine to European cities on Harley Davidson motorbikes, covering 9,375 kilometers, to recruit and spread the word.
1965 saw the seventh Maccabi Games with 1,200 athletes from 25 countries. 15-year-old American swimmer Mark Spitz won 3 gold medals in his first international competition.
Continuing to grow the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel were host to 7,500 athletes from 50 countries.
Orange County Sends Athletes to the Maccabi Games
The first offcial OC delegation participated in the 1990 Games in Detroit. OC Maccabi sent a young Jason Lezak, who won multiple medals in Under-14 swimming. Jason went on to compete in four Olympic Games, earning gold, silver and bronze medals. He is in the Orange County, Jewish and US Swimming Halls of Fame.
Modern Maccabi Alumni
Other notable Maccabi alum include Ben Helfgott, a Jewish Holocaust survivor was one of two Holocaust survivors to compete in the Olympic Games. He represented Great Britain at the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Mark Spitz, American swimming phenom, Ethan Zohn, of the television show “Survivor” fame and Bret Loewenstern, an “American Idol” finalist participated in the Maccabi Games and ArtFest respectively.
Maccabi and the Shoah
The rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust took a terrible toll on Jewish lives. Many of the early Maccabi clubs in Europe were lost in the Shoah. Hundreds of thousands of Maccabi club members perished and Maccabi clubs, like so many other Jewish institutions and organizations, were destroyed. Many Maccabi leaders played key roles in the resistance against the Nazis. At the end of
the war, those who survived emigrated to the diaspora and Palestine and formed the backbone of what has today become a thriving World Maccabi community.
The story of Hakoah Vienna
Hakoah Vienna is arguably the most famous and successful of all the Maccabi clubs to have grown in Europe before the Shoah. Prior to World War II, it produced several Olympic athletes. Following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 the club was disbanded and shut.
In 2006, the Jewish Community of Vienna rebuilt and reopened the Hakoah Vienna club and in 2011 the Jewish community of Vienna hosted the European Maccabi Games – the first Maccabi Games and the largest gathering of Jews to ever be held on former Nazi Occupied territory. Over 2,000 Jewish youth and adults came from across Europe, North and South America, Israel and Australia to compete.
Zionism and Maccabi: Intertwined Imagination
The Maccabi movement grew and evolved in parallel to the rise of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The dream and desire to build a Jewish state for a strong Jewish people was part and parcel of the ideals of the Maccabi movement. Even today Israel and Zionism are the focal point of the Maccabi World Movement – most especially highlighted by the World Maccabiah Games that take place in Israel every 4 years.
It is no coincidence that it was at a World Zionist Congress that the World Maccabi Organization was born in 1929 and endorsement and support for the Maccabi idea was adopted and enthused by key Zionist leaders. Early on, Maccabi became a most important branch of the Zionist movement and the quest to create a Jewish homeland.
The father of political Zionism made a call to action at the World Zionist Congress: “Friends and brothers – wake and arise!....Get organized! Establish local groups, branches of societies of all kinds, men’s associations alongside those of women, gymnastics associations, singing groups, all with the mark of Zion.” “Train not your spirit alone, but your muscles as well. Stand strong and upright and study diligently and enthusiastically. We will have need of your strength and your knowledge…” “’Young Jews’ was till now a derogatory nickname. Make it an honorable name.”