Hapoel Jerusalem program a ball for kids with special needs

"It has become even more clear that basketball, when properly coached, can empower and advance all kids and teens, particularly those with special needs."

August 17, 2017 04:41
3 minute read.
Once a week, Yachad kids participate in English-language basketball training as part of a joint prog

Once a week, Yachad kids participate in English-language basketball training as part of a joint program with Hapoel Jerusalem.. (photo credit: OU ISRAEL)


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The Hapoel Jerusalem youth department has begun a unique new program in conjunction with OU-Israel’s Yachad Project for English-speaking kids with special needs whose families have immigrated to Israel from North America.

Once a week, Yachad kids participate in English-language basketball training and group practice at the Rene Cassin gym in Jerusalem, under the supervision of coach Gidi Dodi.

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“I’m having the time of my life! I wish the practice sessions would never end,” said Daniel Hall, a member of the newly-created basketball team.

Michal Mordechai, director of community affairs for Hapoel Jerusalem’s youth department, emphasized that “the program with Yachad kids is an extension of our educational philosophy that through sports we can transmit educational values, teach discipline, and strengthen self-esteem and self-reliance – whether we are dealing with ‘regular’ kids or those with special needs.”

Mordechai stressed that the joint Hapoel-OU basketball program for Yachad kids is still in the pilot stage, but like other community-oriented activities, the goal is to see it evolve into a regular, integral part of these kids’ regular schedule in order to affect real change both in participants’ athletic achievements and in their commitment and discipline.

“We have found, even in the early sessions, that the kids are committed and competitive, and they have a strong desire to improve their achievements and abilities. Despite their special needs – or perhaps because of the unique challenges they face – the coach does not make any compromises in the training regimen.

“We absolutely do not lower our expectations, which would create a feeling of being ‘different’ than other kids, and in this way, we encourage them to believe in their own abilities. Somehow, as if by magic, the Yachad kids often learn the exercises even faster that the ‘regular’ kids, and from the very first practice session they themselves see a marked improvement in their ability.”

Hall, who has Down Syndrome, remarked: “I dream that one day we will be a famous basketball team.”

Special needs children in Israel from families who made aliya from America and other English-speaking countries often have a hard time finding their place in regular frameworks because of the language barrier, which is a far greater obstacle for those with special needs than it is for other olim. OU-Israel’s Yachad Project is the only organization in Israel that addresses the needs of these special olim, and works to bring them into Israeli society.

Rabbi Eliezer Golstock, father of Mendy – who also has Down Syndrome – watched a recent practice session, and commented that “It is fascinating and moving to see how the members of the team learn basketball skills and basic training exercises from the coach, while they enjoy the challenge of sports and begin to work together as a team.

“It was even more moving to see how the coach treats them as normative young adults, and does not make any special allowances whatsoever during their practice. This is another great triumph for Yachad and for Hapoel Jerusalem.”

Daniel Sasar, who is in charge of Hapoel’s youth department, added that “We are very happy with our new partnership with Yachad. Over the last few years, it has become even more clear that basketball, when properly coached, can empower and advance all kids and teens, particularly those with special needs.

“This new program is part of our strategy to expand community involvement in the youth department to reach as many teens as possible, and to give them the opportunity to reap the benefits of Hapoel Jerusalem’s basketball program.”

Rabbi Avi Berman, OU-Israel’s Director General, concluded: “I am grateful to Hapoel Jerusalem’s youth department for their cooperation in this wonderful project. It is so moving to see Yachad’s kids in basketball drills, coming together as a team. This new basketball program is part of a larger, wide-ranging effort to mainstream 150 young people into normative society, through an array of experiential activities throughout the year.

“I call upon society at large to make every effort to include these kids; they deserve to be seen and recognized. The Yachad program is made up of so many people with so much heart and soul – the kids themselves, their counselors, the administrative staff; together, they make the lives of everyone involved richer, better, and more spiritually uplifting.”

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