Let the games begin -- the North American Maccabi Youth Games that will bring 2,600 young athletes from around the world to Baltimore for a week-long sports festival starting Sunday.
Jewish boys and girls ages 13 through 16 will form 56 delegations, mostly from the United States and Canada. Others will come from Mexico, Venezuela, Great Britain, Israel, Australia and several states of the former Soviet Union.
The biennial Maccabi Games, introduced 10 years ago in Memphis, Tenn., are being held in the Baltimore area for the first time. Like the modern Olympics and Israel's Maccabiah Games, the event will test participants' acumen in basketball, gymnastics, track and field, swimming, soccer, volleyball and wrestling. The program will also include softball, table tennis, golf, karate and racquetball -- pastimes not quite in the Olympic tradition, yet nonetheless popular, competitive and entertaining.
An opening procession and torch-lighting are planned for Sunday night at the Baltimore Arena. Then the games take place Monday through Friday and the following Sunday at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Catonsville Community College, Catonsville High School, Suburban and Bonnie View country clubs and the Merritt Athletic Club in Woodlawn. Between events, the athletes will tour local attractions, from the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor to Oregon Ridge in Baltimore County.
The gathering, sponsored mainly by Jewish Community Centers in the U.S. and Canada, has a purpose that goes beyond fun and games. It also aims to engender the sense of a common identity among the participants. This bonding will occur not just in the athletic arena but also -- maybe especially -- in the homes of the 1,300 local Jewish families who will house the youngsters for the week.
More important than medals and souvenirs of Baltimore, these young athletes will take back to their various home towns and native lands a heightened understanding that they share a religious and cultural heritage that is special indeed.