Looking to play college tennis
  | By Matthew Cohen
Photo credit: Samantha Sklar

In its continuing quest to “Empower Israel’s children ... beyond tennis,” the Israel Tennis Centers Foundation (ITC) held a special fundraising event at the home of Richard and Leora Linhart in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. The Linharts had this to say, “We are delighted and happy to host such a moving and fun event. These are two things very close to our hearts–Israel and tennis.”

A diverse team of Israeli players were on hand, including 10-year-old Tali Malykhin who started playing tennis at the age of five and is ranked number one in Israel’s 10 and Under age group; 17-year-old Matvey (Moty) Radionov, who has been with ITC since the age of six and is currently ranked number two for his age group in Israel Men’s Singles; 16-year-old Rotem Ashkenazy, who, in spite of being hearing impaired, plays tennis for over two hours each day; 11-year-old Ethiopian Oshri Ayalew, who is referred to as a “new immigrant;” and coach Rakefet Benyamini. The group flew into the U.S. to meet members of the Westhampton Beach community and the surrounding area who were interested in learning more about the current conflict and how the ITC centers are playing an integral role in keeping them safe and secure.

“These children represent the ITC. They are not only truly excellent tennis players, they are an exceptional group of kids,” said Irwin Shorr, board member of the ITC.

Hors’ d’ourves and drinks set the mood for what was an exciting, emotional and fun-filled day of tennis. The children began by sharing some of their incredibly inspiring stories with the audience.

“It is always gratifying to hear the children speak about the positive impact our organization has had on their lives,” said Jacqueline Glodstein, ITC’s vice president of global development.

None were more captivating than that of Ayalew, a member of the High Performance Program at the Marjorie Sherman Israel Tennis Center in Ashkelon, who has endured countless rocket attacks and scrambling to bomb shelters for his safety. Oshri’s family made the journey to Israel from Ethiopia 10 years ago and, despite the latest conflict, he dreams of being the first Ethiopian player to represent Israel in Davis Cup tournaments. His story is one of courage and determination in the face of turmoil and war.

“Having Oshri here in Westhampton Beach is a true Mitzvah,” said Yoni Yair, Israel development director.

What followed was a unique set of drills led by Benyamini which showcased the children’s superior tennis skills.

“Kadima! Kadima!” Benyamini shouted, which in Yiddish means “Let’s go!”

Even for such a young group of children, the discipline and attitude they carried commanded respect. It was clear that these children are destined for a bright future both on and off the court. Being part of this event felt like being part of some greater purpose.

Hundreds of children from southern ITC locations have been transported to northern centers, away from the blare of sirens and the threat of rocket attacks from Hamas. “Missiles don’t discriminate” said Glodstein. Throughout this crisis, the goal has been to provide a caring and nurturing place for disadvantaged Israeli children of all backgrounds, a place where they can continue to learn essential life skills through the sport of tennis. “Every person in the tennis center is carefully chosen, from the people who string the racquets to the tennis coaches. They are all handpicked,” said Benyamini. “For most, the streets are more attractive than tennis; we give these children a home where they may not have a home to go back to.”

It is a scary time for the people of Israel, a time where school teachers carry rifles over their shoulders, bomb shelters are a staple in tennis centers and most put down a tennis racquet to jump into a tank.

“I come from a really low social economy. The Tennis Center is like a second family to me,” said Radionov, who moved to Jaffa from Russia in search of a better life. “When I had nothing, the Tennis Center got me the equipment, shoes, racquet and clothing I needed to pursue a career in tennis. I would be lost without them.”

Since opening its first center in Ramat Hasharon in 1976, the ITC has helped more than 400,000 children, many of whom come from outlying development towns throughout Israel. The ITC’s 14 centers stretch from Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border in the North to Beer Sheva in the Negev Desert in the South. With the help of the Westhampton Beach community, the ITC is looking for funding to raise $50,000 with the goal of installing two more small shelters.

“I wake up every morning knowing I’m going to change a child’s life today. We don’t want to just give them the fish, we want to give them the means to get the fish,” said coach Benyamini.

Credit all photos to Samantha Sklar