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(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Soccer can serve as an aid and a common denominator for Israeli kids of all backgrounds - that was the message communicated on Sunday at the first annual tournament of a program that brings Jewish and Arab youth from all over the country to play soccer together.
The program, which is a relatively new part of the larger ongoing Education and Social Projects Program run by Hapoel Tel Aviv for the last 10 years, brought Jewish and Arab kids to play together on seven mixed teams throughout the country.
"The idea is very simple," says Gerry Showstack, a Resource Development specialist for the project. "Play soccer, get a uniform, have a coach, be invited to regional tournaments and to home games of the professional team. In return, give us two days a week when you come for help with homework, tutoring, and educational enrichment activities." All the kids who participate in the program also go through an informal education program on "knowing your neighbor," in which the Jewish and Arab kids are taught the importance of being good neighbors and the possibility of becoming friends as well.
Although the larger program serves over 23,000 kids from all backgrounds, including development towns, poor neighborhoods, Arab villages and unrecognized Beduin settlements, this program marks the first time Jewish and Arab kids have played together on the same teams. After having separate teams for 10 years, the program's organizers set up a pilot program combining kids from all sectors, and then expanded it to seven mixed teams this past year.
This coming together is a reflection of Israeli society, says former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, who also chairs the educational projects of the Hapoel Keter Tel Aviv soccer youth club.
"There was no intention or policy. There was just a project here and a project there, so that it eventually reflected the [demographic] reality [in communities] below the poverty line today - that 50 percent of the kids below the poverty line today come from the Arab sector and 50 percent come from the Jewish sector," he says.
Although he clarifies that the main purpose of the program is still to enrich the lives of underprivileged children, Burg notes that the mixed program is important because "we believe that through this, you really build bridges. It's Jews and Arabs together, and they communicate in a sports language, in an achievement language, rather than Hebrew or Arabic."
Speaking about the larger program, he adds that "nobody else provides such a service to over 20,000 kids around the country... It's very unique, and this is why it's so powerful and successful."
The larger program has been running for the past ten years, ever since Hapoel Tel Aviv came under new ownership. In fact, the program was the very reason that Hapoel's owners bought the team, Showstack claims.
"[It's] the reverse of the normal order of things, where somebody has a team and then says all right, let's do something for the community. They [the new owners] understood intuitively that if they had a professional team and professional players, they could attract kids to come for tutoring and educational enrichment."
Although Showstack acknowledges that it's difficult to quantify the results of such a program, he believes that it is possible to see the payoff of the owners' vision in the composition of volunteers currently serving in the program. This past year, some 300 of the volunteers were returning grads of the program, says Eran Gal, the program's volunteer coordinator.
According to Gal, many of those who finish the program want to come back and participate again (the program caters to ages 6-16). Many of them go for courses at Tel Aviv University, where they get certified as assistant coaches, counselors or referees, and then come back to volunteer in the program.
Kfir Cohen is one such example. A former participant, Cohen now coaches the mixed team, which comprises the towns of Kfar Yeladim, Afula Illit and the nearby Kfar Sulam.
"It's a privilege for me to be able to work with these kids because I was also a kid in the program, so I believe in it, as well, and it's a way for me to give back," says Cohen."
Despite the program's success, its organizers would like to make it even better. Showstack would like to see a 1:8 tutor-student ratio rather than the current 1:20. The organizers would also like to see the mixed Arab-Jewish teams expanded so that all of the larger program's participants could eventually get the same kind of close interaction as those in the original pilot project and the first seven teams.
For now, at least, it seems the message of the program has not been wasted on its participants.
Says Dror Levi, 11, "We're not enemies with Arab kids. Arabs are also nice, and we can get to know each other and play together."
His teammate, Abd-Raman Abu Rass, 10, adds, "It's important to be together and play as friends."