Seven Jewish teenagers from Morocco are participating in the JCC Maccabi Games now underway in Haifa, the first delegation from the North African country to take part in the international sports competition.
The annual event, which is billed as the largest Jewish youth sporting event in the world, is taking place in Israel for the first time in over a decade and only the second time in its four-decade history, in celebration of the state’s 75th anniversary year.
“The king of Morocco likes the Jews so there is always a lot of security and we don’t have to be scared because the police protect us,” said Aaron Tordjman, 14, from Casablanca, a soccer player. “In Israel we feel right at home. We feel [we’re] in our country.”
“It’s unusual for us to see so many Jewish people together—both secular and religious people—walking around,” added his cousin Lea Tordjman, 14, who came to play tennis. “[We feel] it is our country.”
More than 1,000 Jewish teenage athletes including 700 from North America, 300 from Israel and scores of participants from dozens of countries around the globe are taking part in the weeklong event.
Run by the JCC Association of North America and the Maccabi World Union, the sporting event, which is geared for those between the ages of 14 and 17, is separate from the more prominent Maccabiah Games, commonly known as the “Jewish Olympics,” which takes place every four years in Israel.
The Tordjman cousins, wearing red T-shirts reading “Maccabi Morocco,” said they were especially impressed by the group of about a dozen youths from war-torn Ukraine, with their blond hair and blue eyes, with whom they were sharing a pre-competition course on Judaism 101 at the Haifa youth hostel that is serving as their base.
While most of the Moroccan teenagers had been in Israel before, they said that the 2020 U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, which saw Israel make peace with four Arab countries including Morocco, made coming to Israel even simpler than before.
“Our relations have improved, and now it is even easier for Moroccans to come to Israel,” said Nolan Dery, 15, from Casablanca, a basketball player.
About 2,000 Jews live in Morocco today, while about one million Israelis are either from Morocco or are of Moroccan descent.
Bonds of identity
The sporting competition will be followed by nearly two weeks of educational travel throughout the country, designed to strengthen the teenagers’ Jewish identity through sports and to connect them with Israel’s land, people, history and cultures.
“Having the first-ever delegation representing Morocco at the JCC Maccabi Games is deeply meaningful for all the participants,” said Samantha Cohen, vice president for program and talent at JCC Association of North America and head of JCC Maccabi.
“Watching the teens from Morocco exchange their culture and Jewish stories with teens from across North America, Israel and Europe has been magical. They have come together here in Israel because of their love of sport but are quickly learning that there are many bonds of Jewish identity that can unite them on or off the field or court,” Cohen said.
Their first soccer game Sunday saw the Moroccan players join in a winning effort with youths from Ukraine, Indiana, Long Beach, Greater Washington and Miami.
At home in Israel
Two members of the Moroccan team were French-born, and are in Israel for the first time.
“This is a beautiful country,” said tennis player Ava Fhema, 14, from Casablanca, who was offering her impressions on her second day here. “It is easier to live here as Jews.”
The idea of Israel as a home of the Jewish people was a recurring theme when talking to the Moroccan team members.
“We feel more in our place living in Israel,” said basketball player Jonis Sultin, 13, from Casablanca.