In between the Negev and Judean deserts, about 16 miles west of the Dead Sea, sits a city with a population of about 24,700 Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, Bedouins, and immigrants.
When Albert Tannenbaum arrived from Philadelphia 39 years ago, the city of Arad was a small glimmer of what it is today. Tannenbaum opened the Tennis Center in Arad, turning the sport into a staple of life in the city.
And on Dec. 17, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Ministry of Education for his decades of work there.
“The objective of the Tennis Center is to create an environment where kids come and learn sports in a recreational way,” Tannenbaum said. “There are groups that are competitive, education for young children 3, 4, 5 years old; all kinds of groups, all kinds of ages, all kinds of backgrounds here in Israel.”
Tannenbaum first moved to a kibbutz near Arad in October 1978. After a short time, the kibbutz offered him membership on condition that he learn Hebrew, so he moved to Arad to start attending ulpan.
While there, Harold Landesberg, whom Tannenbaum knew from the Star of David Games in Philadelphia, invited Tannenbaum to check out the Tennis Center in Ramat Hasharon.
When he returned, he felt inspired to start a Tennis Center in Arad as well.
“I said, ‘My God, I can combine my love of sport, using tennis, and facilitate a way to work with kids as a job to create something,’” Tannenbaum said.
Tannenbaum’s background was in sports. He studied community recreation at Penn State University.
“I didn’t pick up a tennis racquet until I was maybe 20 years old,” Tannenbaum said. “I so much fell in love with the game. … Everywhere I traveled, I always took my tennis racquet with me. I realized that tennis is an international sport. It’s a social event.”
Whether he studied abroad in Scotland or lived on the kibbutz, that racquet was beside him.
Rafi Freeman, who worked as a counselor at the World Union of Jewish Students Institute, met Tannenbaum in those early days through his ulpan. Freeman would ask everyone who came by if they played softball to join a team, and he was pleased to learn that not only did Tannenbaum play softball, but he could also do a windmill pitch. The two played on a semi-professional softball team together in the ’80s.
Freeman recalls when the Tennis Center first opened in Arad. Tennis was not a popular sport there at the time, but Tannenbaum approached the mayor of Arad, the head of tennis in Israel and the head of Sherut La’am — a service organization — and said he wanted to start the program and that he would run it for no pay.
Since then, Freeman said, Tannenbaum has become a well-known figure around Arad.
“Because of him, tennis has become popular in Arad,” Freeman said. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of kids have played because of him. He has become known as Mr. Tennis.”
After a year, the Israel Tennis Center asked Tannenbaum to come on board as a salaried employee. Except for a gap in 2002 when he returned to Philadelphia, Tannenbaum has remained at the Tennis Center, helping out the hundreds of children who have come through the program.
“In today’s world, it seems that people jump around a lot in their profession, in their work,” he said. “I guess I’m old school. I’m proud of the efforts that I’ve made and the organization I work for, and I’m proud of the kids that I’ve had great contact with.”
Tannenbaum’s favorite memories from working at the Tennis Center include reaching out to Ethiopian immigrants who moved to Arad in the ’80s. One of those immigrants continued working there and now manages the center.
“Nothing makes me prouder,” Tannenbaum said. “I get goosebumps thinking about that. Maybe because of my efforts, I helped her and kids that came from backgrounds like that. Tennis is a way to integrate them into a society.”
The children Tannenbaum worked with became family for him. He shared religious holidays with them and their families, attended their Bar Mitzvahs and was even at the brit milahs of their sons.
One of these students who became family to Tannenbaum is Yanin Levi, whose Tennis Center story is on the organization’s website.
“Burt taught me so many values that I remember to this day … qualities I try to instill in my own children,” Levi said on the site.
At the beginning of 2017, Tannenbaum stepped down from his role as manager of the center. Though he still teaches classes, he felt that, with changes in technology, it was time for him to step aside.
In September, just before the High Holy Days, he received a phone call that the Ministry of Education wanted to send someone to Arad to record a video interview with him. They then sent him an invitation to attend an award ceremony in Jerusalem.
The lifetime achievement award he received recognized individuals who have made an impact on Israel.
“There were thousands of people,” Tannenbaum said. “I was just blown away.”
It wasn’t until he got to the Jerusalem and saw the video interview of himself playing there that he started to realize the importance of the award.
“I wasn’t looking for this type of thing,” Tannenbaum said. “I figured, what I do, my daily existence — that’s just what I do.”
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