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Israel Tennis Center focuses on life skills, values

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Badea Karkabi well remembers the feeling he had as a teenager of being adrift and alone. There were issues at home, a family breakup and at age 14, he dropped out of school. His mom, seeing that her son felt sad and lonely, suggested he try sports, but neither soccer, basketball, swimming nor tae kwon do appealed to him.

But then Karkabi tried tennis and something clicked. It was like love at first sight and his life has never been the same, the 25-year-old said last month during a visit to Toronto.

Karkabi believes joining the Selma & Irving Ettenberg Israel Tennis Center (ITC) in Haifa put him on the right track for a productive life, and gave him confidence and support at a critical time. His coach, Meir Deri, became a role model for him and mentored him to become the person he is today, Karkabi said.

Now, Karkabi is an assistant coach at the ITC in the centre’s competitive program. “ITC changed my life,” he said. “It gave me a lot of success from the games. They made me feel like a part of a family.”

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Karkabi is determined to give back to the ITC and help others in the way he was helped. As coach of the ITC’s June exhibition team, he chaperoned four young tennis players from ITC facilities in Haifa, Ashkelon and Jaffa on a North American tour that ended in Toronto. The trip included stops in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The group met with ITC benefactors, offered tennis demonstrations to highlight their skills and spoke to supporters, describing the important role ITC plays in their  lives, said Jacqueline Glodstein, the New York-based executive vice-president of global development of the ITC Foundation.

They also got to do some fun stuff during their three-day stop in Toronto, including visits to the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and Centre Island.

Canadians have been supporting the ITC for decades. In just the last four years, the Canadian branch of the ITC has transferred between $200,000-$225,000 per year to the ITC and going back 40 years, the total has reached millions of dollars, Glodstein said.

The November 2015 JNF dinner in Toronto, which honoured Kevin Green and Joseph Frieberg, raised $5 million to support a social services complex at the ITC facility in Be’er Sheva, as well as the construction of what will be the 15th ITC facility in Sderot.

While tennis is a big selling point, Canadians, it seems, are attracted to the organization at least as much for what it does off the court.

“We talk about this organization beyond tennis,” Glodstein explained. “It’s the delivery of life skills, teaching values, serving under-served children in the community.”

Most important, she continued, is its focus on bringing together youngsters of various religious backgrounds and socio-economic levels.

“It’s really about coexistence. It’s a good news story about Israel,” she said.

Karkabi, who is a Christian Arab, said he has many Jewish friends he’s met because of his involvement with the ITC. As part of the centre’s coexistence program, hundreds of Arab and Jewish kids, starting at age four, play and train together, he said.

Daniella (the ITC asked that youngsters’ family names not be used), 12, plays daily at the Nussdorf-Mark Families ITC in Jaffa. An immigrant from UzhGorod, Ukraine, she was introduced to the sport by her father, who was a tennis coach in Ukraine and has continued to mentor young talent at the ITC in Israel.

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Daniella and her dad immigrated to Israel about a year ago, but they had to leave her mother and sister behind to look after her grandparents. That made adjustment to life in Israel difficult, especially since she  knew almost no Hebrew. But the ITC proved to be a home away from home and a place to make new friends.

“The Israel Tennis Center is like my family, like my second mother,” she said, pointing in particular to the Jaffa centre’s manager, Rakefet Binyamini, who “is like my second mother.”

“When I’m crying, she always cheers me up, gives me a hug,” Daniella said.

Other ITC players who were part of the touring group included, Oshri, 13, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 2011 and who now trains in the high performance program at the Marjorie Sherman ITC in Ashkelon; Osher, 17, who comes from a family of seven children and whose family’s financial situation is tenuous. He trains at the ITC in Ashkelon as well; and Alona, 19, who plays at the ITC in Haifa and is now part of the Israeli navy’s athletic program, which allows her to train while completing her military service. Alona has represented Israel in Fed Cup competition.