WELLINGTON — A tennis court seems an unlikely venue for international diplomacy, but the sport is enabling children from diverse backgrounds in Israel to learn that they’re really not all that different from their peers.
That message was delivered loudly and clearly Thursday afternoon at Wycliffe Golf & Country Club, where members of the Israel Tennis & Education Centers participated in the sixth annual Arad ITEC Program and Exhibition on the club’s center court.
The 23 ITEC sites in Israel use tennis to bring together youngsters of all religions and ethnicities, but they offer so much more than learning the game.
“You don’t need to have any type of tennis skills,” said Yoni Yair, ITEC’s vice president, development, who is based in Deerfield Beach and was a graduate of the first ITEC center in 1976. “It’s based on the needs of specific groups of children — at-risk, immigrants, special needs. Tennis is just the vehicle. For 99 percent of the children that come on a daily basis to our tennis centers, it’s an island of stability. It’s a safe place. It’s the largest social service for children in Israel.”
The three youngsters who learned tennis at ITEC displayed their athletic ability Thursday in doubles and singles against their coaches and one of Wycliffe’s tennis pros. But their personal stories made the biggest impression on the capacity crowd of about 400 people.
There was Yonatan Barak, 13, of Tel Aviv, who began playing when he was 6 and said the ITEC center where he spends five hours every day is his second home — he even celebrated his bar mitzvah there. His dream is to win the U.S. Open.
Celine Absawi, 15, who started playing at age 6 at ITEC, was described by Yair as “the ambassador for peace. She comes from an Arab family in Haifa and grew up in our Living Together program.”
“Throughout my journey at the center, I gained multiple skills and values that have helped me to become a better athlete and human being,” she said. “Discipline, respect, hard work and sportsmanship are some examples. The center is multicultural. Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians all play together peacefully and train for one purpose: supporting and believing in each other.”
First female Israeli tennis player invited to play in Dubai
Mika Dagan Fruchtman, 19, of Ra’anana, made history as the first female Israeli tennis player to be invited to compete in an international tournament in Dubai following the signing in 2020 of the Abraham Accords peace agreement.
“I was amazed to see how welcomed I felt,” she said. “All the people were so friendly and nice. And to play on the center court and the Israeli flag is like waving next to me, it’s way beyond tennis for me.”
Noam Gershony had the most impactful story. An Apache helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, he survived a crash in 2006. Unable to move his arms or legs, his jaws wired shut, he spent 18 months in the hospital.
“I had to learn how to do everything all over again,” Gershony said. “When I got out of the hospital, thankfully I found the Israel Tennis & Education Centers, and there I found a new passion and love for life. Even though at first I thought, ‘How can you play tennis? You’re in a wheelchair. You’re too slow, you’re too low.’ But I found the biggest advantage in wheelchair tennis: I don’t wear out my tennis shoes.”
Six years after his crash, competing for Israel in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Gershony won the gold medal in singles and the bronze in doubles.
Jennifer Haas, of Boca Raton, a member of ITEC’s international board of directors, who attended the event along with fellow board member and Wycliffe resident Robert Glass, visited three ITEC sites this past November.
“For many of the children at ITEC, tennis is merely a platform for the educational and social programs they need to thrive,” Haas said. “Each center is like an oasis, where children, many from the poorest communities, come every day for support and love and, of course, tennis. We also were met by dozens of young adults who had grown up at ITEC, had benefited from its programs and now had returned to serve as coaches and mentors to the next generation. To me, this is a testament to the importance of our work.”
Haas said that at the ITEC center in Jerusalem, an Arab mother told her that her son “was learning not only tennis but to live peacefully with his Jewish counterparts. No more than 10 minutes later, a Jewish woman approached me and told me … how grateful she was to have a place where her daughter could come and learn that peace was possible.”
Wycliffe members Marty and Harriet Ross learned about ITEC through a friend’s daughter, who said they had to meet the dynamic Yair. They invited him to lunch at the club and were impressed by what he told them about the centers’ programs.
“It sounded good and I checked it out for a year to make sure it wasn’t a scam,” said Marty Ross, an avid tennis player who loved the idea of using the sport as a means of “playing for peace and teaching kids of all denominations to get along.”
Wellington tennis exhibition raises about $100,000
The result was a tennis exhibition at Wycliffe, which has raised approximately $100,000 annually from club members and corporate sponsors for ITEC’s center in Arad, specifically for the center’s Youth at Risk, Girls Empowerment, Special Needs and Coexistence programs.
Also participating in Thursday’s exhibition were Eden Ein Eli, an ITEC graduate who now manages the ITEC center in Taybie, and Noam Yitzchaki, vice president, development of West Florida, an ITEC alumnus who now lives in Tampa.
“I was in Arad and I saw the meaningful impact the program has on the community there,” Yitzchaki told the audience. “The children don’t have many things to do after school. Providing them so many opportunities regardless of their background, ethnicity, culture, religion, everyone is welcome, thanks to you.”
Yair said similar events have been held from Toronto and Westhampton, N.Y., to Chicago and Los Angeles. He said Palm Beach County clubs that have held fundraisers include Addison Reserve, Boca West, Frenchman’s Creek, St. Andrews and Woodfield.
For information, visit www.itecenters.org or call Yair at 954-778-0940.