On July 6, eight Philadelphia-area teenagers will embark for Israel as part of Legacy Youth Tennis and Education’s “Building Bridges” tennis and cultural exchange program in conjunction with Israel Tennis Centers.
And get this: Not a single one of them is Jewish.
That alone is one of many aspects of this program that makes it — ITC’s second of its kind, following a smaller exchange program with South Africa last year — so unusual. While developing tennis skills certainly plays a part in it, there’s something much larger at stake.
“We can bring children here” to the United States “and they go” to Israel to learn about different cultures and how to help these children learn life skills through tennis,” said Richard Weber, global director of marketing for ITC, which operates 14 centers throughout Israel and has North American offices in New York, Toronto and Deerfield Beach, Fla. “We help kids at risk and with special needs. We’re the largest social service organization in Israel. We help all children of Israel, regardless of background, cultural, ethnic and economic circumstances.”
So does Legacy, more recently known as the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in East Falls, which has been in operation under various umbrellas since 1952. It has become a tennis haven for kids throughout the Delaware Valley, ranging from the suburbs to the inner city.
Some of them have been coming for years, honing their skills while expanding their social and cultural horizons. The fact that a couple of staffers are the only Jews among the contingent that will travel from Akko to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv over a 10-day span, spending a night in a Bedouin tent in between, is a testament to Legacy’s diversity.
“My mother is a first-generation German” immigrant, said 15-year-old Collin Schmidt, a sophomore at Central Bucks West, who makes the trek from Doylestown to the center a couple of times a week. “She never realized growing up she was probably around Nazis. It’s very important my generation needs to make sure a Holocaust never happens again. We need to be the ones to stand up.”
Like the five other boys and two girls on the trip, Collin has been in touch with his Israeli “pen pal” from ITC since being accepted into the program last August. They email each other regularly, exchange photos and even video chat. They’re also trying to learn enough words and phrases in each other’s language to be better able to communicate when they meet up in a few weeks.
Once they arrive in Israel, Collin and the others will stay at the homes of their new friends for a couple of days before touring the country, visiting some of those 14 ITC sites along the way and even competing in a tournament.
Then, upon their return home, they’ll prepare to reciprocate, with six Israelis coming here from August 5 to 15. Not only will they get a full taste of Philadelphia, but they will also visit New York and Washington, D.C., where they hope to fit in a White House tour on their busy itinerary.
The kids can’t wait. “It’ll be exciting to eat a meal with the Bedouins,” said 15-year-old Aaron Loder of Wyndmoor, who attends Germantown Friends and will be travelling with his father. “They live such a different life. It’s humbling for me. I take things for granted. Living in a tent will be different.”
That’s part of the thinking behind the ITC-Legacy collaboration: Break away from the stereotypes and let the next generation see firsthand that people — whatever their religion or color of their skin — are basically the same.
“Our tagline is, ‘Empowering Israel’s children beyond tennis and beyond borders,’ ” said Weber, whose nonprofit organization, which provides services to over 20,000 youngsters annually, was created in 1976. “We see this idea of taking kids peer-to-peer — learning about each other, learning to understand and respect each other — going beyond Israel and around the world.
“That’s the goal. Even with our name — Israel Tennis Centers — people don’t know who we are. They think maybe we’re a chain of tennis spas, which couldn’t be further than the truth. One other common misconception is, when you think of Israel, you think ‘Jewish.’ In fact, if you look at the demographics, it’s an enormous melting pot. We have Christians, Bedouins. Jews and Arabs all mixed together.
“Legacy shares the same aspirations,” he continued. “Our missions are so similar. So the fact we’re working together — it’s tailor-made.”
While partially subsidized by ITC and Legacy, in order to qualify for this journey, participants each had to raise $1,000 on their own, in addition to being involved in various team fundraising projects. “We have 12 kids in the program,” explained Legacy’s manager of youth leadership and volunteer engagement, Ben Hirsh, a 28-year-old Temple grad from Huntingdon Valley who started with Legacy in 2005 and coordinated a 2013 initiative to help build schools in Haiti.
To be selected for the trip, he said, those interested had to demonstrate their interest. “They wrote essays, along the lines of ‘Why are you interested in learning another culture?’ The idea was to connect young tennis players through an online pen pal experience to learn about each other’s country, cultures, tennis backgrounds, family lifestyle and differences in schooling systems.”
Now it’s time to put all that learning to the test. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the kids,” said Rachel Isenberg, who’s been teaching them what she calls “the beautiful but difficult language of Hebrew.” “Our program is so diverse. A number of our students have not been out of the country or on a plane. Jews talk to Jews all the time about Israel and non-Jews have misconceptions about Israel. It doesn’t have to be like that. Those are the notions we want to break down.”