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(photo credit: Maya Spitzer)
The Doubles Coexistence Program at the Israel Tennis Center in Jaffa has quickly become a uniting force for the local Arab and Jewish communities.
In operation for just over two years, the program pairs up Arab and Jewish teenagers in doubles teams to learn tennis, "with the ultimate goals of tolerance, leadership, and resisting peer pressure," ITC CEOJanine Strauss explained this week
"Leadership brings about understanding, dialogue, and builds bridges," Strauss said. "A leader can resist peer pressure and realize that you don't have to necessarily hate someone because they're different."
In an effort to illustrate the positive impact of the doubles scheme, Strauss gave the example of a meeting of parents of the dozens of youngsters on the program which happened to be held on the second day of Operation Cast Lead last December.
Strauss recalled how one Arab mother recited an old Arab proverb at the meeting, telling those gathered: "Instead of cursing the dark, light a candle."
Her bright vision was emblematic of the diverse crowd engaged in dialogue in support of their children's participation in the tennis program.
In the midst of Arab-Israeli hostilities, the general feeling was one of hope, that this program "makes their children better understand that ultimately the two sides can get along," Strauss said as she watched groups of teenage Arabs and Jews compete with and against each other at the Jaffa Center.
"It's nice playing here and meeting friends. All of them here are my friends," said Arab Jaffa resident Zaki Hinnawi, 13, motioning with his racket to the other participants in that afternoon's session.
He recalled that when he first began two years ago, "I was shy, but my Arab friends, we started talking to my Jewish friends, and then we combined into one group of friends.
"Some of my friends at home still don't understand, and they ask me, 'why do you go, because you get free stuff?' and I tell them, no, because I like to play tennis and I like to make new friends there."
"This is a great start in combining Jews and Arabs, and will definitely help us in the future."
Jewish residents of Jaffa who have joined the program are equally optimistic of its success.
"The program gives us a good way to join together," said 13-year-old Yelena Vilichinsky.
"I didn't think I would I would connect with everybody when I first started, and I thought it was strange. Now, I want to improve my tennis and be with my new friends."
As well as in Jaffa, the program is also run at ITC locations in Haifa, Beersheba, and Tiberias.
The ITC, along with the Marci Lynn Bernstein Charitable Foundation, the major donor supporting the program, hopes to expand it to more of the ITC's 14 centers operated throughout Israel, according to Todd Bernstein, a member of the Bernstein Foundation.
The theme of coexistence, woven into all of the ITC's programs, and emphasized as a centerpiece in the Doubles Coexistence program, is approached by the ITC in that "you can only respect differences if you understand the differences," says Strauss. In doubles tennis, Strauss explained, "you have to rely on one another and communicate to succeed," inherently fostering mutual confidence and respect.
In the first week of the program each child meets individually with ITC psychologists and engages in "simulated discussions," to diminish preconceived prejudices "from home, television, and in what they read," Strauss said, adding proudly that she has "never witnessed Jewish-Arab conflict" at the ITC, which she credits to this early psychological involvement.
Samir Hamaty, an Arab father whose daughter Stephanie has practiced tennis at the ITC for five years, even before the inception of the Doubles Coexistence Program, agreed.
"We don't mix sports and politics. I come and watch and see only friendship among the children, they enjoy being together and they enjoy the game. And I hope in a short time there is peace. All we want is peace."
The ITC, which has 9,800 children participating in its many programs each week, has built up an infrastructure of 14 centers and 172 tennis courts since its inception in 1976.
"We reach more children than any other non-governmental organization in the country, every shekel going directly to our programs," Strauss noted proudly.
Its founding, Strauss said, "was a dream and a hope to get children off the street and into a nurturing, protective environment so that they can reach their full potentials.
"We are not political. We're open to children of all backgrounds, irrespective of what nationality or religion they belong to. We want to build a better society here in Israel.
"The Tennis Center isn't only geared toward competition. We teach tennis to teach the game of life. Not only do we teach tennis and fitness, but through sports psychology we teach children how to deal with success and failure and how to handle pressure in all aspects of life," said Strauss.