By: Jan Engoren Contributing Writer
Last February a unique group of student tennis players touched down in South Florida from Tel-Aviv, Israel for their winter exhibition tour and to Play for Peace.
Their full schedule of court-time and raising awareness for their program was cut short due to the coronavirus and the team flew back to Israel two days earlier than planned canceling their exhibitions on Mar. 12 at Woodfield Country Club and on Mar. 16 at Boca West Country Club, both in Boca Raton.
The group, members of the Israel Tennis & Education Center Foundation (ITEC), is comprised of students ranging in age from 12 -16, and of differing ethnicities and religions – including Israeli Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Arabs (both Muslim and Christian).
The ITEC empowers children through sport and education to foster lasting peace in the Mideast. Their goal is to teach children of all backgrounds how to live successful lives, using tennis as the medium.
Yoni Yair, vice president of development and an alumnus of the program says, “Through this remarkable organization I was exposed to, and learned from, being in an environment of inclusiveness, unity, respect, diversity and caring.”
“It is my great hope that we can offer this same chance to as many children as possible and give them an opportunity to build lasting peace within their communities as well as successful futures for themselves,” he said.
In 1976 at the age of seven, Yair was one of the first children to enroll in the program near Ramat HaSharon, near Tel-Aviv. He had dreams of one day becoming a professional tennis player, but in retrospect, he says for his parents it was more about bringing him to a safe place and one where he could learn life skills, good values and English.
By the time he was 14, Yair realized he wouldn’t be the next André Agassi or Pete Sampras, and began working as an assistant coach as a way to stay connected to the center and earn money to help his family.
At 18, Yair entered the Israeli Defense Forces where he served for three years, before returning to the center to become a coach and educator and help develop social impact programs serving kids from differing backgrounds and religions.
He’s proud that since its inception, the ITEC has transformed the lives of half a million kids and enrolls more than 20,000 kids each year. The ITEC has 14 centers across the state of Israel, most in underprivileged neighborhoods where the children live on or below the poverty level.
Thanks to the program, 100 percent of its graduates have gone on to receive college degrees in the United States by earning tennis scholarships.
Yair rattles off a number of successful alum – Nadine Fahoum and her brother, Fahoum Fahoum, (Muslim Arab Israelis), graduates of the Haifa ITEC, who received full scholarships to play tennis at Duke University.
“Even if they don’t make it on the tour, this is a great opportunity for them to come to the U.S. for college and become ambassadors for co-existence on and off the court,” says Yair.
Other success stories include Amos Mansdorf who was ranked #18 in the world, Shahar Pe’er, ranked #11 and the first Israeli doubles tennis team to win a Grand Slam tennis title in 2008, Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich.
Noam Yitzchaki , 31, a native of Kiryat Shmona, Israel, now studying for his master’s degree in sports science and physiology at USF in Tampa was also one of the ITEC students.
He began hanging out at the center and learning to hit a tennis ball at the age of eight.
“I had no intention of ever winning Wimbledon,” Yitzchaki jokes. “It was a social and safe place to go after school.”
At that time, in the mid- to late 1990s, Israel and the IDF were engaged in the South Lebanon conflict. Yitzchaki remembers rockets being fired across the border and having to go into the bomb shelters.
Despite his unambitious beginning, Yitzchaki went on to play regional and national tournaments and at the age of 18 finished number one in the under 18 age group in the State of Israel.
He admires his fellow Kiryat Shmona tennis player, Dudi Sela, ITF ranked #29 in the world.
Through the ITEC, Yitzchaki met his best friend, a Lebanese native, Rudy Fahili, who came to Israel when the IDF forces pulled out of Lebanon and many Lebanese who assisted the IDF were forced to leave Lebanon.
“Rudy fell in love with the game of tennis like I did,” remembers Yitzchaki. “He helped me with my math and I helped him with his tennis. We became the best of friends until now.”
He says Fahili earned his college degree, got a job in a hi-tech company and works as an instructor and coach at the Coexistence Center.
“This experience has had a big influence on my life,” says Yitzchaki. “The ITEC does more than keep kids off the streets; it provides them with an education and the ability to dream big and achieve any goals or dreams they have, using tennis as the vehicle.”
“On a daily basis, we are teaching kids how to fish by giving them the skills and values they need to better their lives and in the long-run, to create a better, more peaceful society in Israel,” he says.
To learn more about the ITEC, visit itecenters.org or contact Yoni Yair, VP of Development at 954-480-6333 or firstname.lastname@example.org