Mike Willner, an assistant wrestling coach at American University, packed the gold medal he won in the 165-pound division at the Maccabiah Games, which ended Thursday. Born in the Israeli port city of Haifa, he is going back to Washington.
"Life is just easier in the U.S.," said Willner, 28, of Chevy Chase, who left Israel long ago with his family. "If you want to come live in Israel, you have to be a patriotic type, because a lot of the things you take for granted in the States are luxuries here.
"I'm very happy that there's an Israeli state, and I realize the necessity of it, and it's a very secure feeling that it exists and has a strong defense, but I feel that the States is my home, my country."
For many of the 14 other Washington-area athletes on the U.S. team, the 12th Maccabiah, which drew approximately 4,000 Jewish participants from 38 countries, marked their first time in Israel.
Athletically, they made the most of their stay, winning 19 of the 550-member U.S. team's 246 medals. (The United States and Israel, with 214 medals, won twice as many awards as the other teams combined.)
Gerry Gimelstob, former basketball coach at George Washington University, coached the U.S. men's team, which beat Israel, 95-94, for the gold.
Washington was best represented on the swimming team. Chris Spector, her sister Beth, and Jimmy Tuchler, all of Silver Spring, and Tom Pereles of Rockville, won eight medals among them.
"We've all known about each other since we were 10 or 11 years old," said Pereles, 21, who has swum with the Spectors on the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club the last four years.
Pereles, who will finish his competitive career and enter medical school at Harvard in the fall, said that since "none of us are going to the Olympics," the Maccabiah "gives us the opportunity to swim in an international meet."
The Maccabiah's expressed purposes -- besides entertaining Israelis -- are to foster Jewish pride and to attract athletes to immigrate to Israel. Although a few of the athletes here have said they intend to settle permanently, this Maccabiah does not seem to have produced a bumper crop of immigrants. None of the Washington-area competitors is known to be planning a move.
Asked if she came here for the sake of being part of a grand Jewish gathering in Israel or for the sake of the competition, Beth Spector, 20, said, "I think it was both. We wanted to do well in the meet, but we'd never been to Israel, so it was a great opportunity."
Beth Spector plans to transfer from North Carolina State to the University of Maryland in the fall on a full swimming scholarship.
At the Maccabiah, she won bronze medals in the women's 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke. Chris Spector won silver medals in the 200-meter backstroke and 400-meter individual medley and a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke. Pereles won a gold medal on the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay team and Tuchler won the bronze in the men's 400-meter individual medley.
Other medal winners from the Washington area included Julie Lang of Rockville, gold medalist in women's Olympic air rifle and silver in 3x20 position shooting; Marni Rager of Silver Spring, who won a gold medal in women's team gymnastics, an individual gold on the uneven parallel bars, a silver on the horizontal bar and a bronze on the balance beam, and Jeremy Diamond of Bowie, Md., who won the gold medal in the men's long jump.
Also, Ken Barer, a forward for George Washington's basketball team, played on the men's squad here; Daren Dembrow, of Silver Spring, was a member of the silver medalist men's gymnastics team, and Eric Rubinstein, of Bowie, played wing on the rugby team. Rubinstein, a 23-year-old attorney, scored the winning try that gave the U.S. team the bronze over Israel.
Rounding out the U.S. contingent were soccer player David Coonin of Potomac, Md.; tennis player Jeff Hersh of Rockville; Howard Newman of Chevy Chase, who played in the veteran's squash competitions, and Steven Gotlieb of Washington, a tennis player.