Squashbond: Sport and beyond

Squash is a break with a burn: Players work up a steaming sweat. In 2003, Forbes magazine rated it as the healthiest sport in the world.

Tira meets Ra’anana as young squash players work up a sweat (photo credit: DANIELLE MEHLER)
Tira meets Ra’anana as young squash players work up a sweat
(photo credit: DANIELLE MEHLER)
The game of squash takes its name from the soft, “squashable” rubber ball that two players (or sometimes four) whack around the court.
Invented by pupils at Harrow School in England in 1830, the sport spread gradually to America and Canada, eventually becoming popular all over the globe. The British brought it with them to far-flung countries including Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Malaysia and India, as well as to Palestine. During the Mandate period, soldiers took a break from policing and politics on courts built at army bases, and at the YMCA in Jerusalem.
Squash is a break with a burn: Players work up a steaming sweat. In 2003, Forbes magazine rated it as the healthiest sport in the world.
The game is well-loved in parts of our neighborhood.
Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak was an avid player. Many world champions and some top coaches are Egyptian.
Yet squash is not a major sport in Israel, and it is almost unknown in the Arab sector, so when a couple of Israeli coaches entered the Al Zahara Junior School in the Arab town of Tira just outside Ra’anana four years ago equipped with rackets and balls, they were not quite sure what to expect. Not only had the young pupils – girls and boys – never heard of the game, they were also apprehensive about meeting Jews. On top of that, they could hardly speak Hebrew.
“We explained the rules,” recalls Nitzan Moree, “and told the kids to hit up against a wall. Then we chose 25 pupils aged 8-14 and paired them with 15 of their peers from Ra’anana. And Squashbond was born.”
Squashbond, whcih uses squash to instill values of good sportsmanship while creating a space where Arab and Jewish kids can compete and train together, was the brainchild of South African immigrant Hillel Bloomberg. Bloomberg, 74, who set up the first courts in Ra’anana in 1978, today builds and manages squash courts around the country. He also coaches junior-level players. The sport, he believes, is the perfect framework for promoting coexistence.
Squash players share a small space as they battle to be the first to reach 11 points and victory.
This challenge is repeated for the best of five games. Competitors take turns at walloping a ball against the front wall, after which it can bounce once on the floor and ricochet off a side or back wall before the opponent has to slam it again.
The courts are small – 6.4 by 9.75 meters – and opponents need to scramble out of each other’s way because obstructing the other player is strictly forbidden. So squash fosters fair play and requires giving space to “the other,” two values that could do with a bit of help in our tiny, crowded country.
Bloomberg coopted Moree, today Squashbond’s CEO, and son Yariv, both champions and coaches, and the plan came together. With the enthusiastic support of Headmistress Fatin Bashara, the Arab pupils are bused into Ra’anana twice a week, where they join their Jewish peers for a light meal and a sizzling session on the courts. And all this for just NIS 90 a month. Squashbond Israel – Sport and Beyond, a registered non-profit, subsidizes the program.
Squash is becoming more popular in Israel, according to Nicky Capelouto, chairman of the board of trustees of Squashbond, with about 60 courts around the country accommodating some 3,000 players, including 250 kids.
“We saw this as a great opportunity to introduce the sport to Arab pupils as well as a great chance for a healthy, fun experience, and a way for different pupils to interact,” Capelouto explains.
And not only children: Parents from Tira also asked to join in the fun, and for one year, mothers in full garb raced around the courts in Ra’anana, smacking a ball.
Proper communication on and off the court is obviously dependent on sharing a language. But the Jewish kids knew no Arabic, and the Arab kids spoke very little Hebrew. So weekly lessons in English and Hebrew solved the challenge. (From September, Arabic will be added to the mix.) The young players learn group dynamics and leadership skills, and also discover each other’s culture and religion. Hanukka candles sparkle after December practice sessions; Ramadan is explained and respected. And according to Moree, more than language skills and sharp forehands improve over time: Teachers report an overall upswing in the general school performance of the participants, with grades, concentration and study skills all rising.
Indeed, the program has been so successful that it is now being expanded to the University of Haifa, with plans for other parts of the country to follow and a long-term dream of building a court in Tira. Children of Ethiopian background are slated to join the groups, as are kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Ra’anana Municipality supported much of the initial year together with sponsorship from the Arab/Jewish Institute at Beit Berl; today, most of the money comes from overseas donors, many of whom are squash players and compete in the Maccabiah Games.
Former world-ranking players from Egypt and Pakistan have expressed willingness to come and coach; so far, their names are diplomatically being kept quiet. The world of international squash is also taking note, and compliments are pouring in from all over.
Squashbond already  has some impressive achievements: For the first time, Arab players participated in open championships of the Israel Squash Association; Arab girls reached podium positions, while Arab boys finished in the top 20. In addition, two girls from Tira will play for Israel at this year’s Maccabiah Games.
Smashing balls and smashing stereotypes – it seems like a winning combination.
For more information: www.squashbond.org and www.facebook.com/squashbond.