TORONTO — Little Muhammad Uthman doesn’t speak much English, but he’s got his shpiel down pat.
In it, he introduces himself, tells listeners where he’s from and that he’s as happy as can be to represent the Israel Tennis Centers’ (ITC) branch in Jerusalem.
As a 12-year-old from the Israeli Arab village of Beit Tzafafa, near Jerusalem, he’s on the trip of a lifetime, visiting communities in Toronto, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington. Along with three other young tennis prodigies who train at the ITC, accompanied by their chaperon and coach Asaf Yamin, they put on tennis exhibitions and gave a human face to the statistics about the ITC which are formidable in their own right.
Some 20,000 Israeli kids, 16 and under, take advantage of tennis programs offered at the ITC’s 14 locations each year. Since it opened its doors in 1976, 400,000 youngsters have benefited from its programs.
The ITC not only trains kids in the sport, but it has become an important community resource in helping youngsters prepare for adult life. It keeps youth at risk on the proper path, it gives immigrants an entry into Israeli society, and it provides help to children with special needs, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Down syndrome.
Helping build bridges through sport is another important function readily adopted by ITC. Kids from a variety of backgrounds, including Arabs, Jews, olim from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia, are brought together in an environment where they have fun.
Uthman, who studies at Hand in Hand, a school for Jews and Arabs, said people in his village admire the abilities he’s developed as a member of the ITC’s high performance program. And they have no problem that most of the kids he plays with are Jews. “I love playing tennis with friends,” he said through a translator.
His older sister, Sewar, 13, preceded him in the ITC. Sewar is a nationally ranked player in her age group and Muhammad is in the top 40 or 50 in his age cohort.
Raz Hershkovitz, 12, plays at the ITC in Arad. “When I go to tennis, I feel so good,” she said.
In playing at the ITC, Hershkovitz is carrying on a family tradition. Her mother, Leah, immigrated to Israel when she was eight, walking for a month from Ethiopia with her parents and grandparents. Beset by Sudanese bandits, her mother’s grandmother and grandfather were killed on the way.
Leah took up the sport when she was eight. “I love the atmosphere, the way people treat each other with respect and dignity,” she said.
Yarden Simon, 15, plays at the ITC in Be’er Sheva. Her mom, dad and grandfather all played there as well.
“It makes me feel confident in myself,” she said. “The tennis allows me to be independent. I love to come to the ITC. It makes me happy with my life.”
Yoav Nir is 15 going on 20. He trains at the ITC’s high performance program in Ramat Hasharon. He lives in a dorm, prepares some of his own meals and already has his future planned out – at least for the next few years, including applying to the most elite unit in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
He’s ranked first in Israel in the 16 and under category.
“His mental strength is amazing,” said Yamin. “He’s a big fighter. He’s a typical Israeli for me.”
As an elite athlete, he’s got a schedule to match. Up at 5:50 a.m. each day, he trains for two hours before school. Then it’s a shower and he makes his own breakfast. After school, at 1:15 p.m., there’s another 2 1/2 hours of practice, followed by fitness training in other sports.
Nir doesn’t mind the grind. Actually, he revels in it. He loves the tennis immersion and talking about the sport with other guys in the program.
It’s also given him something he might not otherwise have. “It makes you able to deal with difficulties, set up a schedule and prioritize,” he said.
These are important life lessons, said Yamin, 31. Himself a former elite player in his teens, he put that part of his life on hold when he joined the Israeli Defence Forces. He was a member of an elite unit – he won’t say which one – and he feels the lessons learned at the ITC helped prepare him for that.
Not that there was any military training involved, but the development of good work habits, loyalty and discipline are important life lessons you get at the ITC, he said.
Last year’s event at Maple Downs Golf and Country Club raised money to construct a bomb shelter at the ITC in Haifa. This year’s visit included a fundraiser for shelters in Kiryat Shmonah and Sajur.
Israel’s first tennis arena, the Canada Stadium in Ramat Hasharon, was built with funds raised by Canadian Jews.