The 18th Maccabiah Games were brought to a spectacular close on Thursday night in Latrun with a dazzling display of music and dancing, cascading waterfalls of bright lights and, above all, a ringing call for the thousands of Jewish athletes from abroad to return to their spiritual homeland. After a jam-packed 11 days of hard-fought competition between 7,000 athletes representing 54 countries, Thursday's gala closing ceremony was an opportunity to focus on the bond connecting all the participants in the Games and bask in the afterglow of a truly memorable fortnight. When all was said and done, 1,247 medals were given out to athletes from 31 countries competing in more than 30 events. Not surprisingly, Israel swept the podium, claiming over 50 percent of the total hardware awarded with a whopping 628 medals, spread between 239 golds, 216 silvers and 173 bronzes. Finishing in a very distant second overall was the United States, which took home 84 golds, 92 silvers and 79 bronze medals for a total of 255. Australia (20 golds, 19 silvers and 21 bronzes for a total of 60) rounded out the top three, although Russia, which finished in fourth with 57 medals, captured one more gold than the Australians. However, Thursday was not about medals or order of finishes. Rather, as Israeli President Shimon Peres told the Latrun crowd in a rousing opening speech, it was a chance to "celebrate humanity's highest aspirations, the universal quest for peace and the exalted qualities of body, mind and spirit that transcend different backgrounds." The 10,000-person amphitheater was almost at capacity as the evening began amid a burst of fireworks that lit up the silvery sky. Just above the celebration was a white security blimp and an accompanying helicopter, keeping a watchful eye on the all the action, as the police were also out in full force to ensure everyone's safety. Peres was given a trumpets' welcome as he was escorted onto the stage by the recipients of the Most Outstanding Athletes awards - US swimmer Jason Lezak and Canadian chess grandmaster Judith Pulgar. Predictably, Peres declared the 18th edition of the Games to be "the best Maccabiah ever. The largest, the most splendid and the most promising. More than any other that I can remember, these Games were so Jewish, so Israeli, so athletic." Along with all the evening's speakers, the president extolled the beauties of Israel and implored the athletes to strongly consider coming back permanently. "Yes, our land is small, the soil is arid, the water barely flows. We have neither oil nor gold, but we have a great spirit, one which moves all of us ahead to great destinies and to a great future. I invite you all to take part in our wonderful land." Yuli Edelstein, Minister of Information and Diaspora Affairs, spoke to the athletes and complimented them, in particular for "disproving stereotypes about Jewish athletic excellence and bringing pride to Jewish communities throughout the world." Going one step further, Edelstein spoke of "the strive to succeed, to compete, to be the best. This competitive spirit - one that is so crucial in athletics - embodies the Israeli spirit and soul. I look at the Maccabiah as a launching ground that will eventually bring so many more Jewish souls back home. "If it is fair to say that in modern societies, athletes take the place of warriors, then my hope is that these Jewish athletes should develop in the wake of previous Jewish warriors in our rich history. It's time to take the focus away from our battlefields and put it onto the sports fields. We need all of you. Go in peace and come back to us. Be strong and courageous." The poignant message was received, and reciprocated, warmly by so many of those in attendance. "It was so amazing to be here, surrounded by my people," exclaimed an emotional member of the Argentinean gold-medal winning soccer team. "The games were one thing, but it was so much more incredible to be here and feel the connection to the Jewish people and this land." That sentiment, expressed in the same tearful laughter mixed with raucous celebration and, more than anything, Jewish pride, was the lasting image of the 18th Maccabiah Games. The official torch was lowered and extinguished to a stirring rendition of Hatikva as Israel inimitably bade farewell to its (at least for now) guests.