“I am from an Arab family. It’s a privilege for me to interact with my Jewish friends and build new friendships through the years,” Haifa native Rand Najjar, 15, said.
NEW YORK – Monday’s crowd of 68,059 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, was the largest to attend an opening day in US Open history. But those in attendance did not see any Israelis in action. For the first time in many years, there were no Israelis in the men’s, women’s or juniors draws for singles or doubles at the US Open.
That may change in the future if recent efforts of the newly renamed Israel Tennis & Education Centers (ITEC) are successful. But even if the ITEC never produces world class tennis players, they are already producing thousands of tolerant, inclusive citizens who will serve as important ambassadors in of Israel and around the world.
Four promising young Israel tennis players – from diverse backgrounds, home towns and tennis centers across Israel – attended the US Open opening matches to see their heroes in action and to celebrate the conclusion of participating in five tennis exhibitions in eight days in New York, Boston and Cleveland.
Haifa native Rand Najjar, 15, takes part in the High Performance Coexistence Program in Haifa which serves Jewish, Muslim and Christian players. Najjar, who has been playing tennis for 10 years and is considered one of the top players in her age group in Israel, spoke with The Jerusalem Post this week about her experience.
“I am from an Arab family. It’s a privilege for me to interact with my Jewish friends and build new friendships through the years,” she said. “We don’t feel that there are any differences between us. We are all equal. And we feel that the tennis center is such a peaceful place.”
Eden Eneli, also from Haifa and currently a student at Tel Aviv University, coaches in the High Performance program and works with Israel’s national tennis team. While he is pleased to coach players with diverse backgrounds in the city where he grew up, he stressed the much larger role of the Israel Tennis & Education Centers in the lives of the participants.
“My first goal is to educate the next generation. My second goal is to be their tennis coach.”
Nir Skolotsky, 15, who lives in Beersheba and participates in the High Performance program, has played in international tournaments. He dreams of receiving a full scholarship to study and play tennis n a Division 1 university in the United States.
Tel Avivian Noa Hamenoo, 11, dreams of becoming a professional tennis player and competing in Wimbledon like her idol, Serena Williams.
“I love Serena,” gushed Hamenoo.
“[Noa] calls herself the Serena of Israel,” quipped Jacqueline Glodstein, the ITEC Executive Vice President for Global Development.
Hamenoo has not had an easy life and appreciates the opportunities tennis offers.
“I live in an underprivileged neighborhood in South Tel Aviv,” she said. “My parents came to Israel from Ghana, West Africa. I have two sisters and one of them was born prematurely resulting in her having cerebral palsy; she is my inspiration.”
Hamenoo feels the tennis centers are “a safe place where I can come and be with my many friends.”
The youngest, and perhaps liveliest, member of the group was Ariel Kolandarov. The 10-year-old from Tel Aviv, and the top-ranked player in his age group, confidently proclaimed that “I want to be No. 1, like [Novak] Djokovic!” as he playfully signed an autograph.
According to Yoni Yair, ITEC’s Vice President of Development, Kolandarov’s aspirations may not be too far off.
“Ariel is one of the most talented we have ever brought for an exhibition. He has great promise for Israel tennis,” said Yair.
Kolandarov lives with his parents – immigrants in 2002 from Uzbekistan – and his tennis playing sister, Sabrina.
“My parents were both orphans, from the same orphanage in Tashkent, where they met and fell in love. After they married, they made the very difficult move to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv, where we now live. It’s a very poor area, but it’s home. My mom works as a cleaning lady and my dad is a driver. My sister and I receive full scholarships which allows us to benefit from the social services and English language tutoring at the ITEC.”
Over the last 43 years the Israel Tennis & Education Centers has grown and evolved into a social service organization that teaches tennis, offers academic enrichment and mentoring and in the process and empowers thousands of vulnerable children from diverse backgrounds. The foundation started with one center in 1976 and now features 14 centers throughout Israel.
Glodstein noted that people continue to respond positively to the name change—from Israel Tennis Centers to Israel Tennis & Education Centers.
“It is an affirmation of what we do,” she said. “Tennis is just one part of our mission, teaching values and life skills is even more important.”