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Young Tennis 'Ambassadors' Bring Word From Jewish State

August 6, 2009 By:
Debra Flax, Jewish Exponent Feature
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(From left) Event co-chair Richard Katz; players Aviv Ben Shabat; Ellie Arar; Yanay Ben Yosef; coach Anna Berlin; and event co-chair Linda Katz

Yanay Ben Yosef, now 11, began playing tennis at 6, after his older brother, Rothem, was diagnosed with leukemia (he eventually died of the disease several years later).

In an attempt to shield the younger child from the traumas that lay ahead, his parents sent him to a place they knew would provide a safe outlet where he could play and grow. Making the many 45-minute drives from their home in Modi'in to the Israel Children's Center/Israel Tennis Center in Ramat Hasharon, the couple soon realized how important tennis was becoming in their young son's life and the quality care he was receiving -- and would continue to receive -- at the center.

Ben Yosef was one of three members of the 2009 ICC/ITC exhibition team that recently traveled throughout the United States with their coach, Anna Berlin, 24, and Yoni Yair, Israeli development associate for the organization.

They visited nine different cities, playing matches and participating in fundraising events, including a stop this summer at the Germantown Cricket Club.

During all of these stops, the small group worked to spread knowledge about the organization and introduce audience members to a few of the children who have benefited from the ICC/ITC's work.

With more than 14 secured centers -- mainly located in the poorer neighborhoods of Israel -- the organization has helped more than 350,000 Israeli children and currently guides more than 9,000 young ones each week.

The first center in Ramat Hasharon opened in 1976, and the others followed over the course of the next decade or so.

The concept was the collective dream of an eclectic group of six men who lived in various countries throughout the world and who decided, out of their mutual love for tennis and Israel, to fulfill their aspirations about promoting peace and tolerance in the Middle East.

These six men -- including Harold Landesberg, a longtime Philadelphia philanthropist -- developed a series of safe havens that would be able "to provide normalcy, recreation, guidance and self-confidence to all the children of Israel," as was professed more than 30 years ago in the ICC/ITC mission statement.

Ellie Arar, one of the other players on this year's exhibition team, is the 12-year-old daughter of an Egyptian-Israeli single mother. She began playing at age 8 in Jaffa at the insistence of her mother, a former tennis player herself. After visiting the center just to watch the game and learn a little about it, Arar decided to spend the majority of her afternoons at her "second home" in the Jaffa Tennis Center.

Aviv Ben Shabat, 15, the team captain, grew up in the city of Tiberias as one of five children. With tennis as a family tradition, his parents decided to begin sending him to their local ICC/ITC at the age of 4 in an effort to keep him out of trouble. Last year, after displaying a tremendous amount of talent and dedication, he was accepted into the ITC Academy program, located in Ramat Hasharon, which is considered a major accomplishment.

As part of its mission, the ICC/ITC has also provided these children and others like them with a wide set of social experiences, unexpected friendships, worldwide trips, along with a sense of safety amid the chaos of their lives and their country's experiences.

"We are learning how to be good men, good kids," said Ben Yosef, as his teammates nodded in agreement.

As an example of how this has been accomplished, Arar cited the Coexistence Program, a course that brings together Arab and Jewish children in the pursuit of peace through play.

Having the chance to make friends, she never would have met and learning a language and culture outside her own -- these are just a few of the highlights of the project that Arar cited. She said that she loves having the responsibility of helping the Arab children become more active within her center's community and is proud to be a leader.

"The Coexistence Program is good for the future," said coach Berlin, "and I think Arabs and Israelis will begin to see each other differently, and not how the other is shown on the TV."

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