The Maccabiah Games is the primary focus the MWU, and is seen as an important vehicle to promote Jewish identity and traditions through cultural, social, and sporting activities provided at the games. The Games are one of the World’s largest sports events, contending with the World University Games for 3rd spot after the Olympics and Asian Games.
The concept of the Maccabiah Games was the brainchild of 15-year old Russian-born Yosef Yekutieli. The Eretz Yisroel teenager so energized by news of the 1912 Olympic Games that he conceived the fanciful notion of a worldwide Olympics for Jewish athletes in Palestine. With little encouragement, and not a small amount of ridicule, Yekutieli spent the next ten years developing details of his unique idea.
In 1928, Yekutieli presented his far-fetched proposal to the Jewish National Fund, with the notion that the Maccabiah Games be organized to commemorate the 1800th anniversary of the Bar Kochba Rebellion (Jewish revolt against the Romans). Coincidentally, the Maccabi organization was, at the same time, formulating ideas to provide a means of participation by athletes living in the British Mandate of Palestine in important international sporting events; one that would also act as a form of international recognition of Palestine as the Jewish National Home.
The original Maccabiah was held March 28 to April 6, 1932. Its overwhelming success guaranteed its permanent future. Originally conceived as a quadrennial event, Maccabiah II was moved up a year to 1935 because of the rising tide of Nazism in Europe. The rumblings of World War II forced postponement of the third Maccabiah. The delay was 15 years. The Games were reborn in 1950 in the new State of Israel, and Maccabiah #4 was held in 1953. Thereafter, the Maccabiah established its current quadrennial formula, held the year following the Summer Olympic Games.
The Games today are organized by an International Maccabiah Committee and are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee and World Federation of Sports. The Maccabiah Games, ranking among the five largest sports gatherings in the world (in number of participants), are considered Regional Games by the International Olympic Committee.
For each participant, the Maccabiah Games are “two weeks to experience and a lifetime to remember.” For many, the Maccabiah is the athlete’s most significant connection to the State of Israel and for some, Judaism itself. For all athletes, connection with Jewish contemporaries from the far reaches of the world, in the land of Jewish roots, inspires an awakening of heritage.
The 18th Maccabiah was held in July 2009 and attracted 10,000 athletes from 60 countries.