Maccabi World Union

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The international Jewish sports organization which bears the name of *Judah Maccabee had its origin in the belief of young Eastern European Jews involved in the growing movement for a national home in Palestine at the end of the 19th century that one essential prerequisite was the improvement of the physique of ghetto youth. To this end, gymnastics clubs were founded in a number of Eastern and Central European countries. They were not immediately called Maccabi. The first club, opened in Constantinople, Turkey, in 1895, was called the Israel Gymnastics Club, while others were named after another hero, Bar Kokhba, or were known by the Hebrew names "Ha-Ko'ah" ("strength") or "Ha-Gibbor" ("strong man"). The Bar Kokhba club published a monthly journal Juedische Turnzeitung, later called Der Makkabi; it first appeared in 1900 and promoted athletics and national Jewish education. In 1897 the first of a series of Bulgarian clubs was opened in Plovdiv; a club was organized in Berlin in the following year and in Vienna in 1899. 1901 saw the establishment of a Polish club in Lemberg.

The concept of a nationalist sports movement received impetus in 1898 from a stirring address by the well-known Zionist leader, the physician Max *Nordau, at the second Zionist Congress in Basle, in which he proclaimed:

Gymnastics and physical training are exceedingly important for us Jews, whose greatest defect has been and is a lack of discipline… nature has endowed us with the spiritual qualities required for athletic achievements of an extraordinary quality. All we lack is muscle, and that can be developed with the aid of physical exercise… The more Jews achieve in the various branches of sport, the greater will be their self-confidence and self-respect.

The truth of Nordau's contention was demonstrated in 1903 at the fourth Zionist Congress in Basle, where a group of 35 outstanding gymnasts from various European clubs staged an impressive display. It was at this Congress that the foundations were laid for the Juedische Turnerschaft – the Union of Jewish Gymnastics Clubs – which united all the existing sports clubs, beginning with a membership of some 1,500. It was headed first by Ernst Tuch and later by Theowald Sholom, both of them from Germany. During the first decade of the 20th century the movement spread to more countries on the European continent and to Palestine, where clubs were formed in Jaffa (1906) and Jerusalem (1911). The first real approach to Zionism came in 1912, when at a Maccabi conference in Berlin it was decided to organize group excursions to Palestine (1913 and 1914). By this time there were over 100 affiliated clubs in Europe, with a membership running into several thousands, and the movement had come to be accepted, unofficially, as part of the Young Zionist movement. World War i halted Maccabi activities, but with its close they were renewed everywhere in Europe. As the movement grew, so did the need for firmer integration and in 1921, at a convention in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, the Maccabi World Union was formed, and the first Maccabi World Union congress elected Dr. Heinrich Kuhn of Germany as its first president. With ten affiliated countries, the Maccabi World Union started its operations as an organic part of the Zionist movement. By the time of the second Maccabi congress a year later, under the presidency of Heinrich Lellever (1891–1947) of Germany, no less than 22 territorial organizations had affiliated, and the world membership had grown to nearly 100,000.

The first headquarters of the movement were in Vienna, but in 1927 they were moved to Brno, Czechoslovakia, and in 1929 to Berlin, where the movement flourished under the energetic leadership of Dr. Lellever. In 1929 the first international sports meeting was held in Prague; another was held in Antwerp, Belgium, the following year. These were forerunners of the world *Maccabiah games which were to be staged in Palestine from 1932 onward. In 1935 headquarters were transferred from Nazi Germany to London, where Selig *Brodetsky took over the presidency of the World Union, and the second Lord Melchett (*Mond) became honorary world president. In 1939 the world executive was divided into two sections, one operating in Britain and the other, under Lellever, in Palestine. By the time World War ii broke out, the world membership was estimated at 200,000 with branches located in most countries of Europe and in Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, China, Australia, South America, and South Africa. It was in 1939 that a nucleus of refugees from Europe established Maccabi in the U.S.

During the war, the activities of the constituent branches of the World Union virtually ceased. Immediately following the war Maccabi leaders in England and Palestine revived the clubs still in existence and helped survivors of the Holocaust to get to Ereẓ Israel. In the countries that now came under Russian control, Jews were forbidden to engage in sports activities as Jews, although a Maccabi group did exist for a short period in the Russian zone of Berlin. In 1946 the first of the annual European Maccabi conferences was held in Basle. The decimation of Jewish communities by the Nazis and the prohibitions of the Iron Curtain countries reduced the number of young recruits to Maccabi in Europe, but new branches were springing up in North and South America, South Africa, and Australia. The birth of the State of Israel gave the movement a new focus and a new impetus, and from 1948 onward all the activities of Maccabi were oriented toward Israel, where the headquarters of the entire movement were established in Tel Aviv. By 1969, 38 countries were affiliated to the World Union, and the membership was estimated to be about 200,000. By the early 21st century the number of countries had grown to over 50 and membership to 400,000, organized in six confederations: Maccabi Israel, European Maccabi confederation, confederation Maccabi North America, confederation Maccabi Latin America (clam), Maccabi South Africa, and Maccabi Australia (apa). Seventy executive members elected by the confederations run the global organization.

[Menahem Savidor]


During World War ii members of the Maccabi, formerly of the *Haganah, volunteered for the British army and established a Maccabi unit in 1941. In the same year the movement instituted what has become the tradition of the relay of runners carrying a lighted torch from Modi'in, the home of the Maccabees, to various parts of the country and, since the establishment of the State, to the presidential residence in Jerusalem. (In 1977 it reached the president of the United States.) Since the Six-Day War, Maccabi has organized marches "In the Footsteps of the Fighters" to such places as Mt. Sinai, the "Path of the 35" to Kefar Ezyon, Masada, and the ascent of the Ḥermon.

Maccabi's soccer and basketball teams have dominated their sports in Israel. The Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team has won 18 league championships and 22 state cups through the 2004/5 season, while the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, in addition to winning 45 league championships and 35 state cups, has also won the European championship five times.

Maccabi has a junior organization "Young Maccabi" which was founded in 1929 and whose aims include training youth towards good citizenship and personal fulfillment in all branches of Israeli life and adherence to Jewish traditional values. (For Israel Maccabi until World War ii, see *Sport in Israel before 1948.)

[Yehoshua Alouf]


Maccabi, Chairman's News Letter; Maccabi Bulletin; Maccabi World Review; Yedi'ot ha-Maccabi ha-Olami; D. Rimon, Ḥamishim Shenot ha-Maccabi ba-Olam 18941944 (1944). website: