As Israel-Hamas war rages on, young tennis players of all religions, ethnicities unite

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Posted on: 03/18/2024
March 15, 2024

WELLINGTON — At the start of the war with Russia, Ukraine’s Arina Diatlenko emigrated to Israel with her family.

“And now, in Israel there’s war,” said the 11-year-old promising tennis player.

Immediately after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 Israelis, Diatlenko practiced her volleys when she and her family, who are Christian, were in a bomb shelter.

But now the Israel Tennis & Education Center (ITEC) at Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, is open again, providing a safe haven for people of all faiths and ethnicities.

Arina Diatlenko, 11, participates in last week's seventh annual Arad ITEC Program and Exhibition at Wycliffe Golf & Country Club in Wellington.

“I play tennis six days a week, three hours per day,” said Diatlenko, who started playing tennis when she was 8. “It feels normal.”

Last week, ITEC ambassadors, ages 10-18, took part in the seventh annual Arad ITEC Program and Exhibition at Wycliffe Golf & Country Club in Wellington. They demonstrated their tennis skills — and spoke about life in a country at war.

Alin Masri, 10, participates in the seventh annual Arad ITEC Program and Exhibition at Wycliffe Golf & Country Club’s center court in Wellington.

The first Israel Tennis & Education Center was founded in response to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Now there are 23 ITEC locations in Israel.

“If we go back to 1973, the morale and spirit in Israel was so low. This is where the dream of ITEC was started by six visionaries, after the Yom Kippur War,” said Yoni Yair, ITEC’s Senior Vice President of Development, who handles fund-raising for the organization. “How can we help Israel? How can we improve the quality of life? How can we give some inspiration? What can we do to make sure that people in Israel stay and have some joy?

“Fast forward 50 years, after Oct. 7 we asked the same questions: Is it safe to be in Israel? Should we raise our families in Israel? What will the future bring? This time, ITEC is not a dream, it’s a reality, and we were able to react immediately.”

Young tennis players and coaches took over center court at the Arad ITEC Program and Exhibition at Wycliffe Golf & Country Club last week.

Yair said the centers had bomb shelters in place and 23 of them re-opened about three weeks after the Hamas attack. (The Kiryat Shmona ITEC on the Lebanon border remains closed after residents were evacuated because of the threat of Hezbollah rocket attacks.)

Before the centers opened, staffers at the centers were able to travel to kids’ homes and provide food vouchers and, if needed, bring hot meals. Mental health professionals also were available.

“When the centers were opened, we were able to turn them into community centers where everyone was welcome to come and spend hours and just have some normalcy. When you are through tough times, you want to be with your friends,” Yair said. “I think what makes this so incredible is this is the story of Israel, the diversity, the different nationalities, the different religions. We know the power of sports, how through the vehicle of tennis we can build bridges, we can build friendships, we can get kids to be kids and have some normalcy and have joy.”

Yair added that the centers emphasize education along with values and life skills. “What we do at the tennis centers is prepare them for life,” he said. “And I believe that the biggest benefit of the organization is we strengthen Israel by creating such incredible ambassadors who will serve in the army and travel the world.

“I was fortunate to participate back in 1976 when the first center was founded just outside of Tel Aviv. I was part of the program for so many years on the receiving side of it. I benefited from all the social services that the organization provided me back then and played a critical role in my life during some tough times that I went through.

“When I needed a hot meal, hot meals were provided. When I needed a tutor, a tutor was available for me for school. At the centers I did my homework. I was able to learn some computer skills. The centers were there to support me emotionally, mentally, financially. To continue the work that we do and to give back and impact others is something that is very meaningful for me.”

Yair: Continuing tennis exhibitions critical

Wellington residents Harriet and Marty Ross arranged for ITEC to hold a tennis exhibition at Wycliffe after learning of the success of other ITEC fund-raising events throughout the country, including several in Boca Raton. Given the situation in Israel, Yair said continuing the exhibitions is critical.

“I feel that now more than ever coming here is so important, on all levels,” he said. “Because I think the way that Israel is featured in some of the media outlets is not on the positive side. And I think here we have such an incredible story. We’re taking Christian Israelis and Muslim Israelis and Jewish Israelis and we give everyone the opportunity to participate and be part of it.

“Some of the graduates who came through the program, they become mentors and inspire others and have the opportunity to study in the United States. These are the type of stories that are important for people to know about Israel, in creating new leadership and trying to support families of all backgrounds and religions.”

For information, visit or call Yair at 954-778-0940.