Every four years, the Maccabiah Games, the world’s third largest sporting competition (after the Olympics and FIFA), are held in Israel. Also called the “Jewish Olympics,” the games date back to 1932, when they were first held in the British Mandate of Palestine – with 390 Jewish athletes competing from 14 different countries. This year the quadrennial sports competition is hosting 9,000 athletes from 78 countries, some of whom have traveled from the most remote Jewish communities in the world to take part in the historical competition.
Among the 78 delegations, there are 21 nations participating for the first time in the history of the Games, including a tennis player from Mongolia, and athletes from Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Cuba. The Jewish athletes from those respective countries, along with other far away states, were able to compete thanks to two Jewish visionaries: Jeffrey Sudikoff of Los Angeles and Macabi Carasso of Israel.
After attending the 2009 Games, Sudikoff, a venture capitalist, realized that there were a surprising number of countries where Jewish people resided that did not compete in the Games. He went to the Maccabi World Union (the international Jewish sports organization formed in 1921 that organizes the Games) with a proposal to bring Jewish athletes to the games from countries that had never participated. With Sudikoff funding the project, called “Small and Lost Communities,” a 61-year-old Israeli aptly named Macabi Carasso, set out on a mission to recruit Jewish competitors.
Carasso, whose family immigrated from Salonika in 1924 and established a successful Israeli automobile-import business, traveled to 18 countries over the past two years looking for athletes.
He visited a number of remote places in Latin America, the Caribbean, and countries of the former Yugoslavia, among others, and discovered areas with tiny Jewish populations.
“What we’re looking for in these communities is not a super-athlete — someone who jumps the highest or is a tennis champion — but to create a link between these communities and the Jewish world,” Carasso told the JTA.
Indeed, the Maccabi World Union is the largest and longest-running Jewish sports organization, spanning over five continents, with more than 60 countries, 450 clubs, and 400,000 members. As a Zionist organization, its primary goal is to utilize sports as a means to bring Jewish people of all ages closer to Judaism and Israel. Its signature event, the Maccabiah Games, highlights the organization’s message of unity and continuity.
That message was certainly highlighted for the 55-member delegation from Cuba, as noted in an article by The New York Times. Although Cuba has no diplomatic relations with Israel, the official delegation of Jewish athletes and coaches were able to visit because of recently relaxed travel restrictions for large groups departing from Havana, according to the Times.
There are approximately 1,500 Jews living in Cuba, and hundreds have immigrated to Israel in the last few years. Rafael Gonzalez, 24, and his sister, Roxana, 25, are competing in archery. The Gonzalez siblings are from Cienfuegos on the Cuban coast, a city of 150,000 whose Jewish population is 25 people.
Others like Andrew Szabo of the West African nation Guinea-Bissau, one of two delegations representing Africa in this year’s Maccabiah, see the games as an ideal way to unite Jews across the world. “I think the Maccabiah is the ultimate form of Jewish unity,” he told the Times. “It’s not a cutthroat competition, but about getting together, the camaraderie.”