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Teen exchange mixes hoops with hesed
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Teen exchange mixes hoops with hesed

Local and Israeli kids coach and volunteer in NJ and the Negev

In an exchange program combining hoops and hesed, local teens joined their Israeli counterparts in coaching basketball and performing good deeds both here and in Israel.

From July 17 to 24, Israelis Raz Bittan and Etay Levi, both 18, visited New Jersey as guests of Hoop Connections, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and its partners.

Afterward, they and four local teens headed to Israel, where they once again ran basketball clinics, performed community service, and did some sightseeing.

Raz and Etay, who have just finished high school, are from Ofakim, one of the communities twinned with the Greater MetroWest federation through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether program.

The boys are taking part in a program started five years ago by Craig Goldman, athletic director at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston with help from P2G and the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center

Each year, three American teens have spent five days in Israel for a “chance to connect with Ofakim teens while doing important hesed (loving-kindness) — giving kids there a chance to have a week of camp they would not have without us,” said Goldman, taking a few minutes out from helping this year’s group work with youngsters at the YM-YWHA of Union County on July 24. “It’s been wonderful.”

This year, for the first time, the program brought Israeli teens to New Jersey.

The local participants, all 17, are Evan Klein and Lior Idan, from West Caldwell, and James Sopher and Shai Adler from West Orange.

In New Jersey, the teens ran clinics, visited tourist sites, and joined forces with volunteers from the federation to help with the ongoing rebuilding process in Union Beach, where Superstorm Sandy caused such devastation last fall.

“It felt good to help,” Etay said.

The group also worked with youngsters at the Gesher summer camp, held on the Kushner campus grounds. On July 23, they were at Camp Yachad, at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains. On Wednesday, they brought their skills to the Union Y.

“It was cool,” a Y camper said of the session with the teen coaches. “I knew how to dribble before, but I never realized how much faster I could do it.”

Now in Israel, the teens are working with youngsters in Ofakim, a “periphery” town in Israel’s under-developed Negev region.

“Many of the [Israeli] kids thought that we were NBA players,” wrote Lior in an e-mail from Israel. “Throughout the day, they asked us to dunk on the 10-foot-high hoops. Their motivation and excitement made it a lot of fun.”

James wrote of the second day: “I enjoyed interacting and on some level befriending many of the kids here in Ofakim, some of whom are close to me in age. I also very much enjoyed the activity we had after work was done, spending time with my friends and follow counselors.”

Rabbi Rafi Tvizer traveled with the Israelis as their chaperone. An Ofakim resident and member of the Partnership2Gether Joint Steering Committee, he has been involved with the program from the start. He is also the rosh yeshiva at Yeshivot Bnei Akiva’s Afikei Aretz in Ofakim. “This is really bridge-building,” he said. “Each side brings their strengths and experience, so we all benefit from the exchange.”

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