By Etgar Lefkowitz
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.
“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,” added his cousin Lea Tordjman, 14, who came to play tennis.
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 Assn. of North America and the Maccabi World Union, the sporting event, for those between the ages of 14 and 17, is separate from the more prominent Maccabiah Games, which takes place every four years in Israel.
While most of the Moroccan teenagers had been in Israel before, they said that the 2020 US-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.
An estimated one million Israelis are either from Morocco or are of Moroccan descent. Approximately 3,000 Jews currently live in the North African country.
More than 200,000 Israelis visited Morocco in 2022.
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, 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 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 July 9 saw the Moroccan players join in a winning effort with youths from Ukraine and the US.
“This is a beautiful country,” said tennis player Ava Fhema, 14, from Casablanca, who was offering her impressions. “It is easier to live here as Jews.”