It’s like nearing the end of a long marathon, with the finish line in sight.

After months of planning, preparing and organizing, Chabad of Berlin welcomed tens of thousands of people in town for the 2015 European Maccabi Games—wrapping tefillin with hundreds, hosting two impromptu bar mitzvahs, distributing brochures encouraging women to light Shabbat candles and handing out thousands of “Maccabi Games” kipahs on the first day alone.

With an estimated 2,300 participants from more than 36 different countries and thousands of spectators from around the world, the Berlin Jewish community in general and Chabad in particular have rolled out the official welcome mat. More than 45,000 Jews live in Berlin—out of a total Jewish population of 250,000 in the country as a whole—many of whom moved to the capital city from Eastern Europe, France, Australia, Israel and the United States.

Chabad’s presence at the games is due in large part to planning that began nearly a year ago by Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, rabbi of the Berlin Jewish community and the head of Chabad of Berlin, and Rabbi Shmuel Segal, program director of the Chabad Jewish Educational Center in Berlin.

Because of the sheer number of people on hand, Chabad of Berlin enlisted the help of eight yeshivah students to manage some of the logistical operations, such as talking with participants, fielding questions, handing out informational materials and providing opportunities for people to perform mitzvahs. The students are among approximately 300 young men who fan across the globe—serving communities from California to China—as part of the annual Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program.

Excitement is in the air for the competition, which runs through Aug. 5.
Excitement is in the air for the competition, which runs through Aug. 5.

“The most amazing thing about it all,” says Rabbi Shneur Volfman, a student at Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester in Salford, England, “is the spirit of openness and closeness that we all feel here. There are thousands of people from all over the map, speaking different languages, and we feel like one big family, united by a common heritage, a common Torah and a common identity.”

Volfman says he also made connections with people from close to home.

“There was a guy I met from a smaller city in Michigan,” says the Detroit native, “and he gave me his contact info so that I can connect him to his local Chabad center. He is so excited about the idea of taking the Jewish inspiration he got here back home.”

Symbolism Not Lost

The European Maccabi Games are held every four years—two years after the worldwide Maccabiah Games. European delegations send their best Jewish sportsmen and women to compete.

Participants will test their skills in 19 disciplines, including basketball, swimming, field hockey, fencing, dressage, golf, table tennis, chess and more.

The offical kipah of the games
The offical kipah of the games

This year’s opening ceremony was held at the famed Waldbühne amphitheater, which was created for the 1936 Olympic Games and has since been rebuilt. It is the first time that the European Maccabi Games, which run until Aug. 5, are being held in Germany. The last Maccabi Games were held in 2011 in Vienna.

The fact that organizers are using sites that were built by the Nazis is not lost on the crowd; the symbolism is inherent.

Among those who participated in the opening of the games are descendants of Jewish athletes who performed at the 1936 Olympics. (Jewish athletes from Germany were not allowed to participate at the time, although some Jewish sport stars from other countries did.)

The relationship that has developed between Germany and Israel over the last five decades was also exhibited in the form of a youth orchestra, comprised of 50 musicians who performed during the grand opening. Half were Israeli; half were German. A Jewish band from Berlin also sang the official song: “Maccabi Chai.”

Within the framework of the opening ceremony, Rabbi Teichtal met with Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Silvan Shalom; World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder; and Alon Mayer, president of Maccabi in Germany.

Chabad representatives assist Jewish visitors in wrapping tefillin.
Chabad representatives assist Jewish visitors in wrapping tefillin.

Teichtal spoke with Lauder about his meetings with the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to which Lauder expressed that “the Rebbe’s words are always with me.”

Shalom shared how moving it is that the Maccabi Games are taking place in the Olympic stadium in a country where today, young Jews are proudly displaying their pride and identity.

Together, they spoke about the vibrant growing Jewish life in Germany and the role of the games in changing the image of the German capital in the international community.​

As Teichtal stated earlier this year: “We in Germany live in a free society, which recognizes the right of every individual to live a full and enriching lifestyle. In the 19 years that I have lived in Berlin, we have seen a Jewish renaissance that is still unfolding, and I have no doubt that it will continue to flourish, openly and proudly, with complete faith in G‑d.”

The games will continue through next week. Maccabi is hosting a major Shabbat program this week that Chabad is helping to prepare; some are even suggesting that it will break the Guinness World Records for the number of participants at a Shabbat dinner.

From left: Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, rabbi of the Berlin Jewish community and the head of Chabad of Berlin; Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Silvan Shalom; World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder; and Alon Mayer, president of Maccabi in Germany
From left: Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, rabbi of the Berlin Jewish community and the head of Chabad of Berlin; Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Silvan Shalom; World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder; and Alon Mayer, president of Maccabi in Germany
Chabad of Berlin enlisted the help of yeshivah students to field questions and provide opportunities for people to perform mitzvahs.
Chabad of Berlin enlisted the help of yeshivah students to field questions and provide opportunities for people to perform mitzvahs.
A table of information for players and fans, provided by Chabad. As their shirts read: “We're here for all your Jewish needs!” In the center is Rabbi Shmuel Segal, program director for Chabad of Berlin.
A table of information for players and fans, provided by Chabad. As their shirts read: “We're here for all your Jewish needs!” In the center is Rabbi Shmuel Segal, program director for Chabad of Berlin.