A recent trip to Toronto was without a doubt the best six days of Yisrael Desta’s life. Travelling outside of Israel for the first time, the 17-year-old basketball fanatic was determined to make the most of the opportunity before joining the army this summer.
Yitzchak Adgo, left, and Yisrael Desta get ready to play at the Hoops 4 Israel tournament.
Accompanied by 19-year-old Yitzchak Adgo, the two boys from Kiryat Moshe, an impoverished community of 8,000 that is a suburb of Rehovot, were selected to represent their peers in Canada. The two, chosen by local social workers as successful kids who have made exceptional strides, were rewarded by taking part in the second annual Hoops 4 Israel three-on-three charity basketball tournament.
Just a couple of hours before going to watch his favourite player, Allen Iverson, torch the Raptors for 36 points, Desta performed some magic of his own, winning the event’s three-point shooting contest by dramatically hitting his final attempt of the competition. He beat out Adgo and 27 locals, which included York University basketball players Elliot Siemiatycki and Eylon Zemer, as well as former Ontario university all-star Ben Katz.
Arriving in Toronto three days before the tournament, the boys spent their time taking in local sites, going up the CN Tower, touring the Air Canada Centre and visiting Niagara Falls.
The boys were hosted by a Canadian family in the Forest Hill area, and during their visit, they attended a Purim seudah at an Israeli family’s residence.
Before they returned home, they were planning to visit The Score television network to be with Cabral “Cabbie on the Street” Richards, a personality who bonded with them when he travelled to their community last summer to help build new basketball courts.
An outdoor sports court was part of what was built with the more than $100,000 raised at last year’s inaugural tournament. This year’s event held at Downsview Park’s Hoop Dome brought in more than $130,000.
With this year’s funds, the plan is to renovate a community centre for indoor sports, as well as fund sports and recreational programs focused on at-risk youths.
“With the new courts, people are always playing basketball,” said Alan Richter, who led a group of seven York University students on a six-week volunteer mission last summer to Kiryat Moshe. “With their basketball skills, that connection to the community makes them feel part of things. It keeps them entertained and their self-esteem has been boosted as well. They feel a part of Israeli culture.
“The idea is to boost their learning curve and get kids off the streets and out onto the playing fields, getting them involved. There is much more programming for them, a lot more hope for the future than there was before. And that’s the key.”
Over 130 young adults from Toronto’s Jewish community, many of them Birthright Israel alumni, helped support the cause. Jeffrey Gottesman was the top fundraiser, raising $5,600 to win a trip for two to Israel. David Sadja was close behind, at $5,419, winning a trip for two anywhere in North America.
The funds give hope to families such as Desta’s, who came to Israel in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon, a covert Israeli military operation that brought Ethiopian Jews into the country.
Richter said one of the biggest deterrents to Ethiopian immigrants getting jobs is the lack of skills and education. That should start to change as programming such as Hoops 4 Israel provides funds to Kiryat Moshe.
Tournament founder David Goodman spent last summer getting to know the kids. He said he would like to bring some of their better students to a summer camp in Ontario for free.
“[Yitzchak and Yisrael] are involved in the programs that we sponsor and it’s really helped them get on the right track,” said the 25-year-old Torontonian, who takes his Birthright groups to visit the community and see the results of last year’s contributions for themselves.
“If these kids [in Kiryat Moshe] aren’t in these programs or playing basketball, they are wandering the streets, getting involved in crime and violence,” he said.
“Here, they go to school, get educated, go to the army, come out and go to university, get a nice job, and come out of that lower class and become part of middle-class society. That’s what we want. These kids have so much potential.”