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Jewish Journal

Co-Existence on the Court

by Helen Schary Motro

November 18, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Against the backdrop of four impeccable tennis courts in the exclusive Israeli town of Caesarea, an elegant female attorney addressed an attentive audience, a virtual "Who's Who" of the Israeli tennis world: stars, Glickstein, Perkis, Blum and Mansdorf; local and international supporters of the Israel Tennis Centers; and officials of various tennis organizations. Interspersed among them were 50 excited boys and girls wearing brand new tennis tee-shirts. Although, few had ever picked up a racket, the children had been chosen to undertake a five-year program of intensive tennis instruction.

The attorney was addressing the mixed-crowd in her native tongue: Arabic.

The occasion was last month's inauguration of the Israel Tennis Center's pilot project "Co-Existence in Tennis," whose main funding comes from donations of Los Angeles businessman Dan Harrari. Although Arab children already participate in Tennis Center tennis programs -- notably in Haifa, Jaffa and Beersheba -- this unique new program is geared towards very young players, ages six to nine, comprised equally of Jews and Arabs.

The inspiration and driving force behind "Co-Existense" is the energetic and visionary, Freddie Kravine, 80, who serves as president of the Israel Tennis Federation and is one of the original 1976 founders of the Tennis Center.

Kravine, alternatively addressing the assembled guests in the precise English of his native Britain, and in resounding unwavering Hebrew, declared, "We don't see any difference between a 6-year-old Arab girl from Faradis and a 6-year-old Jewish girl from Ramat Aviv."

When asked what motivated him, Kravine is incredulous. "In all the years that our Centers have been in existence," he says, "not one single Arab youngster has risen to be among the top players, despite [the fact] they comprise a full 20% of our nation's population. This program aims to change that."

Another goal of the program, no less important, is to establish an on-going conduit of communication among Arab and Jewish children. Although all the children live in fairly close proximity, the chances of these Arab youngsters ever stepping foot in Caesarea and meeting their Jewish Israeli counterparts is remote -- their homes, towns, schools and friends are either all Jewish, or all Arab.

For the next five years, this segregated world will be breached. Thirty-six children from four neighboring communities will learn how to play tennis, together. The children are drawn in equal numbers from affluent Caesarea, the adjacent Jewish working-class town of Or Akiva, the middle-class Arab village of Faradis and the less well-off village of Jissar al Zarka.

All participants of the program will get intensive training by a leading coach, who himself plans to teach with a lot of smiles, encouragement and body language: Most of the Arab children speak no Hebrew, and the coach knows no Arabic.

The program is a luxurious one: Educators will help the children with their homework on the three afternoons they play tennis, as well as on the other days of the week. Caesarea has put its country club at the disposal of the project. Coaches were staggered when 360 children showed up to be tested for "tennis potential." Two-hundred and fifty children came from the village of Jissar al Zarka alone.

"Co-Existence in Tennis" is a radical and visionary program.

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