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Local leader honors father through gift to Israel Tennis Center
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Local leader honors father through gift to Israel Tennis Center

Funds help Ethiopian kids integrate into society through sports

The late philanthropist Dave Sommer was, along with his wife, Ethel, a major supporter and founding member of the Israel Tennis Centers (ITC). He also always believed, said his daughter, Ellen Goldner, that “there is always someone less fortunate than you, and it is your responsibility to take care of others.” 

So when Goldner, and her husband, Alan, longtime benefactors of the Jewish communities in Greater Metro-West and in Israel, wanted to honor her father, they came up with a fitting tribute: a gift to the ITC to fund a program helping at-risk Ethiopian youth. 

Sommer died in January 2016 at the age of 98. 

When the Goldners visited Israel a year ago, “Alan and I wanted to do something special in his memory,” she told NJJN. Officials at ITC — the largest social service agency for children in Israel, with 14 centers throughout the country — told them that at their center in Jaffa they were having trouble bringing in young Ethiopians to take part in organized activities. Many of them live in poor neighborhoods of Jaffa and are considered “at risk” youth.

“They are the ones we wanted to reach,” Goldner said, so the couple made a $50,000 contribution to a program earmarked for young Ethiopians, in honor of Dave Sommer. 

Part of the philosophy of ITC, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, is that learning to play tennis yields benefits for young people far beyond the courts. They learn sportsmanship, develop self-esteem, and make friends within and outside the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

The gift from the Goldners, of Mountain Lakes, enabled the Jaffa center to hire an Ethiopian-born social worker who “literally takes the kids from the streets and brings them to the tennis center. That is the only way he could get them there,” she said.

In addition to supplying the youngsters with tennis clothes and sneakers to replace the flip-flops many Ethiopian youngsters wear, the Goldners’ funds have underwritten nutrition and health lessons and bus trips to other parts of Israel.

The money also allowed the center to hire a basketball coach who is also a social worker. “He teaches the kids confidence and other values,” Goldner said.

Working with Ethiopians is only one of the many programs sponsored by ITC. It also organizes leagues in which Arab, Jewish, and Bedouin youth play together and offers activities for children with special needs.

To Ellen Goldner, who served from 2002 to 2005 as president of what was then United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ (now Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ), helping the Ethiopian community is especially important, and efforts to do so are beginning to pay off. 

“The Ethiopian kids are also beginning to assimilate more with white Israelis, which is what we want for them. We don’t want them to be second-class citizens,” she said. 

And, she added, “they are also learning cultural values.” In tennis, she said, “you have to wear white. You have to learn to shake hands and be a good sport. You might have a bad day. You might lose. But they learn persistence and perseverance and other important values through sports.”

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