Racquets amid the rockets
by Jonathan Kay, nationalpost.com, Jun. 2, 2014
What better way to bring Israelis and Palestinians together than a game of doubles tennis?
The rules of tennis are the same everywhere. But the game in Israel requires a few technical adaptations — such as the construction of bomb shelters at the country’s network of 14 Israel Tennis Center (ITC) facilities.
The ITC Foundation was created in 1976, in large part thanks to the generosity of Canadian donors. About 20,000 children pass through ITC programs every year — including some who go on to international competition.
This month, a team of four Israeli children, and two coaches, has been visiting the Toronto area to raise funds to upgrade the ITC’s bomb-shelter infrastructure. (Several of the facilities are located close to Gaza and Lebanon, and so require players to get from court to shelter in less than a minute once a warning sounds.) Last year, a similar tour of ITC players raised $100,000 from Toronto-area donors for the ITC Center in Haifa. This year’s proceeds are earmarked for ITC centres in either Sajur, a Druze Muslim village in the Galilee, or the centre in Kiryat Shmona, near Lebanon.
On Monday, at the York Racquets Club in Toronto, I had the pleasure of playing five sets with these visiting Israeli players — who turned out to present an interesting cross-section of the multicultural society that Israel has become.
Yoav Nir, 15, is the country’s number-one rated under-16 player, and trains out of the ITC facility at Ramat Hasharon. (Along with other children showing high potential, he actually lives at the ITC’s dormitory.) As well as having the strong serve and powerful baseline game you expect from a premier player of that age, he also has surprisingly good hands and keen judgment at the net.
Raz Hershkovitz, 12, is not quite tall enough to handle an adult’s kick serve. But she comes with a fascinating backstory: Her mother, who also played at the ITC, emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1980s. Raz was accompanied by Dvorah Marsha, 30, another ITC alum and Ethiopian Jew; she arrived in Israel at the age of seven after walking hundreds of miles across northern African hinterland.
Yarden Simon, 15, is a gracious doubles partner who has become a veteran of European travel, having played various tournaments in southern Europe. She is captain of the ITC Girls’ Empowerment Program — a donor-funded initiative aimed at preventing girls from abandoning sports in their adolescent years.
Muhammad Uthman is an 11-year-old Arab Muslim who lives in East Jerusalem and trains at ITC Jerusalem’s Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Center (named for another Canadian). Needless to say, his training has put him in constant contact with Jewish players, and it’s hard to think of a better way to build interfaith understanding than by putting Muslims and Jews on the same tennis court.
Indeed, the ITC runs a program called “coexistence doubles,” whereby one Arab player and one Jewish player are funded as a pair, typically in cities and towns that feature mixed populations such as Jerusalem and Haifa.
After visiting Toronto, the ITC delegation continues on to events in the United States. But they’ll be back in Toronto next year. For more information, contact the ITC Foundation’s Canadian Executive Director Toby Rosner at [email protected].