Leveling the playing field

An NGO leverages the love of soccer to transmit positive values to youth.

THE EQUALIZER founder and CEO Liran Gerassi  (photo credit: ADI PERETZ)
THE EQUALIZER founder and CEO Liran Gerassi
(photo credit: ADI PERETZ)
On a soccer pitch in one of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids are playing competitive soccer together. At the end of the game, they share gestures of respect – shaking hands, hugging and laughing and recounting the highlights of their match.
This pastoral image is not a dream about what Jerusalem could be like without the political tensions between Arabs and Jews, but a living and kicking reality in Israel. This is the reality of the unique program called The Equalizer.
The Equalizer provides a social, sport and educational framework for youth from Israel’s social peripheries. It gives kids and youngsters from all social sectors the opportunity to practice and play soccer, study and improve scholastically, while strengthening equality, respect, coexistence and tolerance as guiding principles.
The program was founded in 2009 by a group of students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We were three friends, teaching Hebrew to adult olim from Ethiopia at the Lazarus community center in Talpiot,” says Liran Gerassi, founder and CEO of The Equalizer.
“After one class, we saw kids outside, sitting on the sidewalk, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.
They had nothing to do, nowhere to go. We all loved soccer and were fans of the same soccer club. Seeing the kids like that got us thinking about what we could do for them.”
From its modest beginning in a few Jerusalem neighborhoods, today The Equalizer has mushroomed into a successful program working with kids and schools nationwide to reduce racism, violence, drug and alcohol abuse and promote a healthy lifestyle.
Throughout the school year, the organization establishes soccer teams in schools, recruits staff (coaches, coordinators and tutors), manages the weekly routine of two soccer practices and two learning sessions a week and produces a monthly festive regional tournament involving all the teams from each region. During the educational sessions, tutors, who are mostly volunteer college students, assist the children with homework and run informal educational activities.
From that creative spark in Talpiot, Gerassi has built an empire. While his two friends have moved on to other successful careers, he stayed and took the program to the next level. The Equalizer is now a home for 3,500 young players in 230 teams from 200 schools in 13 regions – from the Golan Heights in the North to Eilat in the South.
Participation in the program’s soccer activities is conditioned on participation in the educational meet-ups and scholastic performance. The staff of each team is in close contact with the teachers; participation in soccer activities is always coordinated with the educational authorities.
Half of the teams in the program go to schools in non-Jewish towns. The guides and tutors of each team are mostly local residents of the same town, fluent in the kids’ mother tongue.
At the monthly regional tournaments, all teams from each region compete in a festive soccer event, providing a unique opportunity for kids with different cultural and religious backgrounds to communicate, play and become friends with those who were complete strangers – or even considered enemies – a moment before.
“The equalizer is like a family,” says Yossi, a player in the Carmel region of the program, with bright but shy eyes.
“It enriches your life with friends, soccer and knowledge.
There is no chance that you will feel bored or lost. Even outside of school time or program hours, we get together, practice, play and talk.”
But the kids are not the only ones who benefit.
“Being a guide in The Equalizer is an amazing feeling. It fills me with strength. I feel each one of the kids is like my little brother,” testifies Itamar Eli, who started as a volunteer guide in a learning center a few years ago, and now is entering his third year as the program’s Carmel and Lev Hagalil regional manager, overseeing 24 soccer teams in 24 different schools.
“Soccer is the most important thing for these kids, yet through the framework of the program, they improve scholastically and socially, develop friendships with kids from different backgrounds and eventually become better people in society. It’s a win-win situation.”
The guides and tutors are volunteers with a sense of mission of developing the country’s next generation.
Occasionally, they become role models for the kids they guide.
The program, which started eight years ago with only 100 kids, is developing and expanding every year. It is now involved in key partnerships that include the United Jewish Israel Appeal, local authorities and municipalities throughout Israel, academic institutions, the Israel Soccer Association, the Israel National Lottery, the Sport Ministry, local businesses, individual donors, philanthropic foundations from Israel and abroad and volunteer-based organizations.
“For several years, I had been thinking about how to engage more girls in the program,” says Gerassi.
In general, The Equalizer football teams are open for female participation, but due to lack of interest, the organization decided to open a new program especially for them – Bo’atot (The Kicking Girls). This program will feature girls’ football teams and include lectures and workshops on female empowerment.
“We thought about it as a pilot, but the response was so overwhelming that we decided to open it as another program of our organization,” he smiles. This year, 24 girls’ teams will be participating nationwide.
The Equalizer is expanding abroad, too. The Serbian government recently decided to adopt the program’s model and implement it in schools all over the country, starting next year. Kenya and South Africa are also interested in importing it. But interest in The Equalizer beyond Israel actually began before that.
Last summer, the Jewish and Arab communities in São Paulo invited 22 kids from the program for a two-week tour in Brazil, supported by the Brazilian soccer confederation.
“Two soccer teams – 11 Muslim kids and 11 Jewish kids from seamline and eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods – traveling together to Brazil. It was a dream come true, not only for the kids, but also for us, for the project,” says Gabi Holzhacker, The Equalizer’s special projects manager.
During their visit, the kids were the honorary guests in a match of Palmeiras, the Brazilian champions.
They received gifts from the club, played on the pitch before the match and walked hand-in-hand with players before in the pre-game ceremony in front of an audience of 30,000 Brazilians.
When the delegation also watched Israeli judoka Yarden Jerbi win a Bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the whole group – together, without exception – celebrated the national achievement.
One night during the trip, the kids were awake and anxious to do something.
“They asked us to go to a nearby pitch in order to play soccer,” Holzhacker recalls. “Independently, they split into two teams, completely mixed, Jews with Arabs together. This moment highlighted to me the power of The Equalizer, and that everything is possible.”
Next year, there will be five mixed teams of Arab and Jewish kids together from the Jerusalem area. They will practice together and compete as teams in the tournament.
“The core goal of The Equalizer is for no kid to get lost without a framework or a place to go. We want to give an opportunity to any child, anywhere,” says Gerassi.
“My dream is that there will be an ‘Equalizer’ in every country – a place for kids from every background that promotes soccer, studies and positive principles. This program has the potential to build a better solution for kids around the world,” he says.