When amateur soccer player Michael Erush went to Israel in July to play for Team USA in the 17th World Maccabiah Games, he was hoping to come home with gold. But following the Israeli team's victory, Erush was content with the American silver-medal win.
"I always want to do the best," the 22-year-old said. "We had one of the best Maccabiah men's soccer teams, and we lost to a very good Israel team."
However, his Maccabiah experience didn't end with the medal ceremony. Erush extended his stay after an Israeli soccer franchise was so impressed with his level of play, that he was offered a 10-month contract for the following season.
He is currently shopping around for other offers, but his dream of turning pro could eventually become a reality in Israel -- due to the Maccabiah Games.
"I'm still looking to different career paths," said Erush, a research assistant for an private firm. "I might go back to school and get my MBA, or I might go play soccer.... I just want to keep my options open."
Erush was one of more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from 55 countries, stretching from Brazil to India and Australia to Finland, who gathered this past summer in Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games. In the first games in 1932, 390 athletes from 14 nations participated. Now, the games are the third-largest sporting event in the world, outside of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. Held every four years, this summer's Maccabiah Games, which took place July 10-21, were the largest since its founding.
Competitions took place in approximately 30 categories, including track, tennis, swimming, baseball and even chess. The most dominant countries were Team USA and Israel. The American medal count was 222, with 71 gold, while Israel won 593 medals, 227 gold.
The hope of the organizers is that the games foster a sense of Jewish unity, awareness and pride among the athletes from around the world. In that spirit, this year's games were the first to feature delegations from China, Macedonia and Grenada.
More than 90 athletes from Southern California were represented in such sports as track and field, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby and water polo. Among 20 medalists from the Southland, six won gold; nine, silver; and four, bronze. Some athletes took home multiple medals.
It was "an unforgettable experience, absolutely breathtaking," said Danielle Arad, 17, of Yorba Linda who won four silver medals in the open swimming competition. "The hospitality and open arms that we received from the common citizens and Israeli athletes competing in the games allowed me to feel at home."
For Shirin Lisa Golshani, 17, a Beverly Hills resident, walking into the packed stadium with Team USA during the opening ceremonies in Ramat Gan and being surrounded by Jews who had come from all corners of the world "was the most amazing experience I've ever had in my life."
Golshani, who brought home silver and bronze from the girl's youth karate competition, said that it "made it all the more greater of an experience because I was able to share it with my second family from karate."
For USC graduate and businessman Ari Monosson, this year marked his second trip to the Maccabiah Games. During his first games in 2001, the 27-year-old runner won both a silver and a bronze medal. And while his dreams for gold this year were did not come true, his silver-medal win with the U.S. 4x400 relay team in no way diminished the experience. Monosson said there is nothing quite like the Maccabiah Games, and he recommended that Jewish athletes try out for the next games.
"Participating in them will be a life-changing experience," he said. "There are moments and memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life."
For rugby player Kevin Armstrong, 26, the long journey began with a discouraging setback. He broke his arm in the first 20 minutes of the first game. However, he still enjoyed both watching his team take a silver and being surrounded by Jews from around the world.
"On the field, it was business as usual, but off the field, it made the world seem very small, [especially] when you realize how people from across the world are very similar to you," said the Angeleno.
Injuries and illness nearly kept Santa Monica residents Melody Khadavi and Fran Seegull from the games. The volleyball players each missed a month of practice in the United States due to different maladies, and when they landed in Israel, the combination of jet lag, hot temperatures and long days spent touring before the games caught up with them. But perseverance and antibiotics pulled the pair through the competitions to beat Canada for the bronze.
In the junior competitions, the gold-winning junior baseball team included Los Angeles resident Noah Michel. Alexander Hoffman-Ellis of Santa Monica High School helped the boys junior basketball team cruise to a gold. The girls junior soccer team brought home the gold with the help of coach Wendi Whitman of Long Beach.
For Erush, the next move is still up in the air. The soccer player said that may include the next games.
"Who knows," Erush said. "I would love to win the gold and have silver, too."