Maccabi World Union (MWU) is the largest and longest running Jewish sports body, spanning five continents and more than 60 countries. MWU is a Zionist organization that utilises sports as a means to bring Jewish people of all ages closer to Judaism and Israel.
Maccabi World Union is comprised of six (6) Confederations:
In addition to providing ongoing Zionist educational, cultural and thriving youth programmes (Maccabi Tzair), MWU’s primary or signature activity is ‘’creating the Jewish team’’ through the hosting of the Maccabiah, the world’s largest Jewish sports competition which brings Jews together from across the globe every four years in celebration of Jewish pride, identity and unity. Often referred to as the ‘’Jewish Olympics”, the 2013 Games featured almost 9000 athletes from 78 countries, making it the third largest global multi-sport events.
“The Maccabiah is an extraordinary event which brings Jews together from across the world. Only in the Maccabiah can a 13-year-old Jewish swimmer from Brazil meet an 88-year-old Jewish tennis player from South Africa. The Maccabiah reminds us that we are all one people. The Games symbolise the special spirit of our people that overcame every obstacle to found the State of Israel” (Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, 2013 Maccabiah).
MWU’s Head Office is located at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan, Israel. Almost 70-80% of Maccabi is run by volunteers, and 92 Executive Members elected by the Confederations run the global organisation. The Maccabi worldwide family encompasses thousands of volunteers and friends, making it one of the largest global Jewish organisations with the message of unity and continuity. For more information on MWU, click here.
The Maccabi movement is named after Judas Maccabeus, the son of a Jewish Priest in Palestine, who transformed a band of rebels into a skilled fighting force to defeat the army of Antiochus, a Syrian invader. In 164BC they succeeded in re-consecrating the Temple in Jerusalem, which we celebrate on the holiday of Hannukah. Maccabeus believed that moral and spiritual strength was not enough to protect the Jewish people and emphasised the importance of physical fitness and training, a philosophy which remains a cornerstone of Maccabi today.
The following information on the History of Maccabi is sourced from the MWU website www.maccabi.org.
The Maccabi movement began in 1895 when Jewish sports clubs were founded in Eastern and Central Europe. The first club was established in Constantinople Turkey, called the “Jewish Sports Club”, formed by expatriate Jews from Europe who were excluded from membership in similar clubs. Instead of accepting their exclusion from the institution, they formed the Constantinople Maccabi Society, which spread rapidly as a model across the Bosporus to other European centres of Jewish life.
The Shimshon Gymnastics Society was established in Bulgaria, and in the following year, members of the German Jewish community established the Bar-Kochba Berlin Society. The choice of these names in addition to Hebrew names such as Hakoach or Hagibor symbolised strength, bravery, and heroism. With clubs flourishing throughout Europe in the early 20th century, regional and territorial fraternities and organisations followed quickly. The National Maccabi Federation began in Bulgaria in 1903, and in that same year, all of these societies united into “The Jewish Gymnasts Organisation.
The idea for the founding of Jewish National sports organisations gained momentum in 1898 during the 2nd Zionist congress in Basle, following an inspirational speech by the renowned Zionist leader, Dr Max Nordau:
‘’The history of our people relates to the fact we were once strong physically… but today that is not the case….Nobody can deny us the necessary physical activity needed to make our bodies healthy again… We will develop wide chests, strong arms and legs, a brave look. We will be Warriors….But our recovery to health is not only through the body, but also in the spirit, for as Hebrews will attain more achievements in sport, so will our self-confidence improve. Long live Sport! Hebrew Sports Clubs go forward and bloom.”
In the editorial written in the first edition of the Jewish Sport Monthly, published May 1900 (in time renamed “Maccabi”), the aims and ambitions of the movement were summarised in one phrase: “A healthy mind in a healthy body”.
Maccabi in Ottoman-era Palestine: The first Jewish Gymnast club in Eretz Yisrael was called the Rishon LeZion Club in Jaffa. Beginning in 1909, similar clubs were formed in Petach Tikvah, Jerusalem, Rosh Pina, and Haifa.
Maccabi in Ottoman-era Palestine: All the clubs were united as the Maccabi Federation for Gymnastics and Sports in Eretz Yisrael. This was the first time that relations were established between European clubs and those in Eretz Yisrael. Vibrant branches could be found in communities including Be’er Tuvia, Gedera, Zichron Ya’akov, Haifa, Nes Ziona, Ekron, Rishon Lezion and Rehovot.
Maccabi in Ottoman-era Palestine: By the summer of 1914, the Jewish Gymnasts Organisation already included 30 societies organized into six regions: Germany, West-Austria, Borbon-Galitzia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Eretz Yisrael.
A new umbrella and a youth movement: At the 12th World Jewish Congress in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, the secretariat of Jewish sport leaders decided to form one umbrella organisation for all Jewish sport associations and name it Maccabi World Union. Dr Heinrich Kuhn of Germany was elected President. Maccabi operated as an integral part of the World Zionist Movement, with headquarters in Vienna, which moved to Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1927 and to Berlin, Germany in 1929. By the end of the decade, Maccabi had blossomed to encompass 22 regions and over 100,000 members.
A new umbrella and a youth movement: At the World Maccabi Congress held in 1929 in Czechoslovakia, the Maccabi Movement decided to establish a youth movement “Maccabi Hatzair” alongside each sporting association and thereby incorporate, fundamentally, the handling of subjects such as scouting, camping, field training, culture and current affairs together with the sporting activities, and to establish an educational branch of the Movement to train the youth from a value-educational point of view. The goal was to initiate educational programmes to help foster Jewish, Zionist and Maccabi values through outdoor, cultural and athletic activities.
The first Maccabiah was held in Mandate-era Palestine in 1932 and was nicknamed the “White Horse Olympics” because Tel Aviv Mayor Dizengoff led a parade honouring the Games through the city streets while riding a white horse. Approximately 390 athletes from 14 countries participated in the competition. The impact of their participation in the Maccabiah led a handful of participants to found eight kibbutzim across Eretz Yisrael.
Maccabi Tzair was established in Eretz Yisrael and opened branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Metula, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, Gedera, Zichron Ya’acov, Rosh Pina and Haifa, spreading rapidly across the country attracting thousands of youth and children. When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, headquarters moved from Germany to London. As Germany invaded and subjugated Europe and its Jewish communities, clubs were banned and many Maccabi leaders arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Many famous Maccabi Clubs founded in Europe during the early 20th century were lost in the Holocaust, only those in Britain and Finland remained open throughout 1939-45. Many of the vast numbers of Maccabi members in countries that fell under Nazi rule fought in various resistance groups, most were killed. Only a few hundred, mostly students and young people studying in Allied countries when the war started, were able to join the Allied armies. Nevertheless, even in this darkest of times, the inspiration of the Maccabees sparked brightly: after miraculous escapes from Hitler’s Europe, athletes among Holocaust survivors deported from Palestine by Mandate Authorities to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1941 set up a club in the notorious and disease-ridden camp where they were held.
During World War II, numerous Maccabi athletes from Palestine enlisted in the British Army, most notably a large Maccabi Tzair group that formed and served together as one company of infantry. As part of the Jewish Brigade they fought the Nazi armies in Italy, and after the war organised and aided tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors to reach Palestine as illegal immigrants. In the years after 1945, Maccabi members and Macabbi Tzair graduates played a substantial role in the struggle for Israel’s independence, joining armed underground formations and serving as instructors in DP camps (Displaced Persons) amongst Holocaust survivors. Many enlisted as groups in the Palmach and some later established Kibbutzim. In all that time, Maccabi Tzair in Israel continued as the Maccabi Movement’s main educational branch; it remains the Movement’s largest and most important leadership training formation, distinguished from other Zionist youth movements in its use of sport as an educational tool to teach Jewish values and Zionism.
Soon after the war Maccabi was again flourishing all over the free world, reviving in European communities shattered by the Holocaust, and previously Communist regimes took control, even in some East European countries. Maccabi leaders from Czechoslovakia were especially active in formulating international plans for the 3rd Maccabiah. The movement spread around the world to Jewish Communities in Latin America, Canada and the USA. Headquarters in 1950 moved from its temporary home in London to Israel, and in that year, a first-ever delegation came from faraway Australia to the Maccabiah.
By the end of the 1980’s, the Movement’s activities had revived everywhere, even in cities of the former USSR where clubs had been shut down 70 years earlier.
The Maccabi Games has grown from 390 athletes from 14 countries, to 9000 athletes from 78 countries. The 2013 Games saw the debut of participants from Albania, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Today Maccabi is active in almost all European countries, from Scotland and Scandinavia down to the Mediterranean, and all the way from Portugal to Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. Clubs are vibrant in Latin America and there is also a very strong presence in North America (as well as down here in South Africa!)- Ed.