A winning basket

What does the son of one of the owners of a successful NBA basketball team do for his bar mitzva? He supports a project to start a community basketball team for Ethiopian teenagers in Talpiot.

48ers 521 (photo credit: AZRI SAMIN)
48ers 521
(photo credit: AZRI SAMIN)
What does the son of one of the owners of a successful NBA basketball team do for his bar mitzva? Stuart Harris, son of Josh Harris, the lead investor of the Philadelphia 76ers, supported a new project to start a community basketball team, the 48ers, for Ethiopian teenagers in Talpiot.
At the launch of the program, held in the gym of the Lazarus Community Center at the end of August, all 18 players were decked out in their new uniforms and split up to play a full court exhibition game with Stuart and his father. The Community Center, a partner in the project, has donated the use of the gym year-round.
“I wanted to help Israel in some way for my bar mitzva,” says Harris, who lives in Manhattan. “And since I love basketball and know that it’s not as popular in Israel as it is in America, I wanted to do something different and bring this to Israel.”
Shmuel Asmara, an outgoing 16-year-old who attends the Hartman High School for Boys, was the designated spokesman for the players. Throwing his arm around Harris while addressing the audience after the exhibition game, he said, “We all thank you and your family. Everyone here wants to succeed, and you guys are making it possible.”
He went on to tell Harris that he and his father were good players and hoped that they would return to play with them when the season got under way.
“The 48ers will make the 76ers proud,” said Asmara with a big smile.
Bekalu Tegegne, a 14-year-old who goes to the Rene Cassin High School in north Jerusalem, was excited about the start of the team. “I like basketball. And when I heard about this, I thought it would a good thing to do. We don’t have any other teams in our neighborhood,” he says.
The 48ers, named for the founding year of the State of Israel, just as the 76ers were named for the founding year of the US, is the first Ethiopian youth basketball team in Israel that has a values-oriented program.
It was the brainchild of Ziv Hazan and Adi Vaturi, two 2011/12 alumni of the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership’s pre-army preparatory program.
The project is an outgrowth of Ein Prat’s flagship alumni project at the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, one of the largest centers of its kind for new immigrants from Ethiopia. The alumni group renovated a community center at the absorption center and now runs a weekly enrichment program for young children and their parents to play together and build stronger relationships.
A large number of families move to Talpiot after leaving the absorption center. Hazan and Vaturi wanted to start a project that would help the Ethiopian teenagers integrate into society, especially after the demonstrations against racism organized by Ethiopian young people in the face of a number of highly publicized anti-Ethiopian incidents in various neighborhoods around the country.
“Our goal is to strengthen the ability of Ethiopian newcomers to cope with the challenges of being part of Israeli society, to give these teenagers a sense of confidence, to help them to become role models in their community and go on to do something meaningful that gives back to society,” says Hazan.
In addition to the basketball team, which will play other youth league teams in and around Jerusalem – and hopefully on the national level as well – the program includes scholastic tutoring for the team members, a social counselor, leadership training workshops, kung fu training and trips throughout Israel. This is the added-value social part of the program.
Josh Harris, a former wrestler and avid marathon runner, who kept up with the lively youngsters throughout the exhibition game, was clearly proud of his son.
Stuart’s mother, Marjorie, and his older sister, Hannah, were in Israel for a lightning visit to attend the launch of the project.
Both were clearly moved when father and son stood side by side as each of the team members was called to the floor to receive a Nike gym bag and a basketball from the Harrises. In addition, each player received two 48ers uniforms and a pair of high-top basketball sneakers.
“I am really proud to be part of you guys,” said an excited Stuart Harris. “I see a group of teenagers who are passionate about the game, and this makes you very strong. I know you’ll go a long way.”
DAVID NACHMAN, head of the Kfar Adumim-based Ein Prat Mechina, which brings together religious and non-religious young people, told the Harrises, “For me, this day signifies exactly what we do at Ein Prat – teach our participants to believe in themselves, to believe in their ability to bring about change and to engage in social activism that is meaningful to Israeli society.”
Hazan wholeheartedly agrees. Now in the new second- year six-month program at Ein Prat, he says that his experience at the academy was instrumental in strengthening his character and giving him the confidence to know that he could overcome difficult challenges and drive social change.
“While I was at the mechina [academy], I organized a three-day program with a few of the other participants to help renovate the homes of elderly people in Safed. There were so many issues to deal with and obstacles to overcome, but when everything finally came together, we had such a feeling of satisfaction. Because of what we learned at the mechina, we came away with the feeling that we could really do things. It is very empowering,” says Hazan.
Noam Arbel, a graduate of Ein Prat and director of Ein Prat’s emerging Alumni Association, provided guidance and assistance to Hazan and Vaturi in starting the program. He says he is sure that many more new programs will flourish as a result of the Alumni Association.
“People move on with their lives,” says Arbel, “but there is a strong connection to Ein Prat. Being an alumnus gives each one of us a sense of purpose and commitment to the ideals of Zionism and a unified Israeli society and to living meaningful Jewish lives [religious or non-religious] that will reflect on Israel’s future.”
“Our graduates feel a strong sense of mission,” explains Nachman. “In the past 11 years they have gone on to make considerable contributions in bridging the ever-widening social gaps that threaten Israeli society.”
As one of Israel’s first pre-army programs, Ein Prat, established in 2001 in Kfar Adumim, which overlooks the stark, rolling mountains of the Judean Desert, is a model for the flourishing of similar programs throughout the country.
According to Nachman, it is a year-long educational incubator that “inspires young people to build a strong Jewish-Israeli identity, work toward leadership positions during and after their army service and then engage in social entrepreneurship that fosters sustainable social action in Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide.”
“What I see in our classrooms is the passion of young people to learn, to question, to explore. I am bowled over by their intensity,” he says.
It is this intensity that Hazan and Vaturi are bringing to the 48ers program. Each player had to apply for a spot on the team and go through a rigorous acceptance process that included a personal interview, providing recommendations from their school, physical fitness exercises and basketball tryouts. Once on the team, players must attend 90 percent of the three-days-a-week practices, maintain a 75 grade point average and refrain from drinking or smoking.
Hazan and Vaturi hope the project will eventually become a national model.
Hazan, who is from Ashdod, is an avid basketball player. He was chosen to play in Israel’s national youth basketball league and was also a counselor for underprivileged youth. Vaturi, who grew up in Holon, played basketball for the Elitzur-Holon team and for her high-school basketball team. She was head of Holon’s city-wide student council, where she initiated a number of community projects. Today, Vaturi is a flight simulator trainer in the Air Force.
“Who knows?” quips Nachman. “Maybe one day a 48er will go on to be a 76er.”