If you consider the best tennis players ever produced in Israel – Shahar Peer, Dudi Sela, Andy Ram, Jonathan Erlich, Shlomo Glickstein – they all share one thing in common. Every one of them spent their formative years learning the sport at the Israel Tennis Centers (ITC).
The ITC is a virtual tennis factory, producing tennis players ranging from the professional level to those who enjoy the sport recreationally.
Whether Neriya Yona, Sewar Uthman, Yossi Dahan or Shai Buchnik go on to become internationally ranked stars, or end up as good players who enjoy a competitive match now and then, still remains to be seen. Last weekend the four up-and-coming tennis athletes were in Toronto, accompanied by Sharon Hauser, manager of the ITC in Yokneam, a community in the central/northern reaches of the country, not far from Haifa.
They were here as part of a larger North American tour to drum up interest in the ITC, display their skills and raise funds for bomb shelters at the organization’s 14 facilities.
Rockets from Gaza are now capable of reaching deep inside Israel, “so we have to install more bomb shelters given that [people] have to get in within 45 seconds once they hear the [warning] sirens,” said Toby Rosner, executive-director of the Canadian wing of ITC Foundation.
Larger shelters can cost as much as $100,000, smaller ones $25,000. Most facilities require more than one to ensure everyone has the chance to find safety in time. The ITC’s goal is to raise more than $200,000 in Toronto alone. When The CJN met the ITC representatives late last week $50,000 had already been raised.
The ITC sponsored a tennis exhibition and fundraising event at the Maple Downs Golf & Country Club on Sunday.
Hauser said Yokneam already has a shelter. Other locations, including facilities in Be’er Sheva, Ofakim, Kiryat Shmonah and even Jaffa, require them, especially since their proximity to Israel’s borders means people have even less than 45 seconds to find refuge. In the case of Ofakim, it’s only five seconds.
The ITC is an organization that Torontonians have taken to in a big way. The centre’s flagship operation, in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, was constructed largely with Canadian funds. And the organization has an impressive donor base that continues to support the centre’s activities, Rosner said.
What makes the ITC attractive to supporters is that they can designate where their funds go, whether for bomb shelters, general revenues, children at risk, immigrant communities or programs that foster coexistence between Jews and Arabs, she added.
The four-athlete delegation that visited Toronto included a young Arab Muslim girl, Uthman, who, along with her brother Mohammad, are regulars at the ITC’s high-performance program in Jerusalem.
A resident of a small village that’s part of greater Jerusalem, Uthman, 13, has been playing tennis since she was eight. She loves the ITC. “It’s more than tennis,” she said. “It’s family. I like to play with my Jewish friends.
“I respect my friends and my friends respect me.”
Their friendship continues off court as well, where she and girlfriends communicate on WhatsApp, an instant messaging service. “We talk about tennis, our families, a lot of things,” she said.
Yona, only 9, is already playing tennis at an elite level. A few weeks ago, she became national champion in her age group. Her trip to Toronto marked her first time on an airplane.
Yona plays and practises five times a week at the ITC in Jerusalem. “I like playing with friends,” she said through an interpreter, adding she feels that the professional staff at the centre is “like family, like at home.”
Buchnik, 11, is from Ashkelon and is already showing some promise. At an exhibition versus Canadian David Cup player Jesse Levine earlier in the year in Florida, he managed to take a few points. He enjoys the competition and friendship he gets at the centre.
Dahan, 17, has already set his sights on a post-ITC career. A resident of the ITC’s dormitory at Ramat Hasharon, he’s hoping to earn a scholarship to play tennis at a U.S. university after he completes his military service.
The ITC is not just about tennis, Dahan said. “It’s the people there. It’s a big family for me. I can talk with everybody.”
“I’m more at the tennis centre than at home,” said Dahan, who hails from Yehud, near Tel Aviv.
He believes a future at an American school, where he’d like to study sports medicine, is a realistic goal. Other guys, who, like him, were resident at the ITC Academy, have gone on to study and play there, he said.
Without the ITC, he continued, “my future for sure would be different. ITC opened a lot of doors, in Israel and in the United States too. The education you get from tennis, you become a better human being. I see it in my friends.”
Hauser, who as a kid played at the ITC facility in Haifa, said the organization employs 300 people, among them 200 coaches.
ITC facilities also provide recreational activities integrating newcomers to Israel, including the children of Sudanese refugees and Filipino caregivers. There are many instances in which young people have been put on a path that takes them away from drugs, abuse and a dead end existence, he said.
Hauser cites the case of Baraa Ka’aba, a 15-year-old girl from a Bedouin village 30-minutes by car from Yokneam. The girl comes to the facility every day by taxi, and the ride is subsidized by an American donor, to the tune of $1,000 a month. When she arrives, she removes her modest clothing so that she can compete like the others in shorts and shirt. Then, on her return, she dons the traditional garb of her community.
“The other kids [in her village] are jealous of her,” Hauser said. “The other kids do nothing, they have nothing over there.”