A unique intercultural exchange program uses tennis to bring American and Israeli teens together through visits to each country.
I believe the children are our future/Teach them well and let them lead the way…
Those lyrics, from the Michael Masser/Linda Creed 1977 smash hit, “The Greatest Love of All,” could be the unofficial motto of a recent cultural exchange program between a group of Philadelphia-based teenagers from the Legacy Youth Tennis and Education and their counterparts from the Israeli Tennis Center.
They’ve experienced each other’s ways of life, their cultures and traditions, attempted to break down long-held stereotypes and set the tone for what will hopefully be the kind of coexistence sorely needed in their respective worlds.
“This has been a yearlong program highlighted by a summer exchange with the goal to break down negative stereotypes and create young ambassadors,” explained Ben Hirsh, Legacy’s 28-year-old coordinator of youth leadership and volunteer engagement, who coordinated both Legacy’s visit to Israel last month and the Israeli group’s trip here.
“Tennis was the hook. It didn’t matter what color or religion you were. The first thing was playing tennis. But then we had discussions about our differences and stereotypes. They learned from each other’s differences and similarities, and bonded together really well. Overall, I think we got a lot more out of trip and the whole experience than we expected. We really did succeed with our goals.”
No matter the participant — from the American kids who quickly discovered the Israelis weren’t that different from themselves, to the Israelis, who cherished the time spent in Anerican homes, to the program directors, to the parents — that was the universal refrain: Whatever we thought it would be like, it turned into so much more.
“It’s been far better than I expected,” said 15-year-old Aaron Loder of Wyndmoor, who toured Israel with seven other local teens — none Jewish — in early July, before returning the favor last week.
“I can say Israel isn’t so far off from what it’s like here. My family there was extremely warm and welcoming. I actually felt like a family member there and was able to experience Israeli and Arabic cultures.
“Jerusalem was such a special place to me. The desert was visually stunning. I just love ancient ruins, so Masada was wonderful. I was really amazed in Akko, walking underground and through the city really captivated me. And Tel Aviv was a nice city, too. It’s actually a little smaller than I expected. I thought it would be too crowded, like New York.”
Then, after catching up on his sleep, he prepared for his new friend to visit. “Madhi” — a 15-year-old Arab boy from Akko — “stayed with me five days,” said Aaron, who played video games and basketball with his guest. “We tried to make him feel as at home as possible. I think we succeeded in that. He loved my dog, Biscuit, which is ironic because he’s afraid of dogs. It was really nice having him at my house. It was like a prolonged sleepover.”
Watching her usually shy and soft-spoken son come out of his shell made it all the more rewarding for his mother. “I think it turned out be a really transformative experience for him,” said Amina Loder, who was most struck by the level of humor her Israeli guests provided throughout their visit.
“It gave him an opportunity to spend a lot of time with the Legacy kids and the ones from Israel,” she added. “I feel he’s made friends for life. It’s a whole different experience traveling with other kids and learning about their culture than traveling with your family. I think Aaron came back a different person with the connections he’s made.”
The same goes for the Israelis, who, during a busy 10 days in the United States, got to see not only Philadelphia, but New York and Washington, D.C., in addition to taking a trip the Jersey Shore and one to the mall. “At first, I just thought I was coming to America to see places I didn’t see before,” said Ohad, a 15-year-old Muslim from Akko. “It surprised me the people I met were more interested in me. Now I have a new friend. I see a new culture. I think the media shows America very different from what it is.”
On the other hand, Ben, whose last name, like the surnames of all the Israelis, is withheld for security reasons, had been here before. This time, though, he saw a different side of the country. “It’s been very
exciting and special to see how they live and see their culture,” said the Kiryat Modzkin resident, who visited the U.S. as part of his Bar Mitzvah trip. “You can see American kids are just like you. They have the same hobbies and love to play tennis. We’re just kids — we talk about a lot of things. But I never thought I’d be friendly with kids like these.”
Having the entire group visit the Philadelphia Israeli consulate brought serious nachas to Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region Yaron Sideman.
“If you look at our mission statement, it says our mission is to enhance friendship and build relationships between Israel and our region,” said Sideman, who addressed the assembled group, along with State Representative Cherelle Parker and former NBA all-star World B. Free, Philadelphia 76ers Community Ambassador. “I can think of no more impactful way to establish a relationship between Israelis — Jewish kids and non-Jews — than through sports and the arts.
“For me, it aligns perfectly with what I’m here for. These guys are communicating with each other in the most meaningful and positive way possible. They’re talking to each other, not at each other. To me, this is the most significant form of eliminating biases and building bridges.”
Building Bridges. That’s what the Legacy program is officially called. For the participants, what took place over the past month was the embodiment of that.
And only the beginning, they hope. “We’ve already had conversations on how to do it next year, using the kids from this year as mentors,” said Hirsh, who said Saturday’s goodbyes before the Israelis left for home were emotional all around. “In the bigger picture, we’d like to expand it to create a global network of like-minded tennis centers. South Africa and Brazil are on the short list.”
ITC, which has been around for decades, in the process discovering top players like Amos Masdorf, Shahar Peer and current Israeli star Dudi Sela, embraces the relationship as well. “What we’ve found is the kids over there have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations as they have here,” said ITC global director of marketing, Richard Weber. “This children-to-children tennis diplomacy exchange really played itself out nicely. The fact that kids were able to learn from each other and experience things together building relationships is exactly what we had in mind when we launched this program.
“Our motto has been that they’re ‘Playing for Peace.’ We look forward to more such opportunities with Legacy and with other organizations in other parts of the world.”
Contact: [email protected]; (215-832-0729).