Tennis player Rachel Pashaev, 11, is ranked among the Top 10 girls in her age group in Israel. But for Rachel and other players representing the Israel Tennis Centers, swinging a racquet is much more than a game. A resident of Sderot, where missile attacks from Gaza are a common occurrence, Rachel is one of over 1,000 “children at risk” who rely on Israel Tennis Centers throughout the country as a safe haven.
Founded in 1976, the Israel Tennis Centers Foundation is a nonprofit that works to enhance the social, psychological, and physical development of Israeli children of all backgrounds through the medium of sport. Now comprised of 14 centers throughout Israel, ITC offers structured tennis programs for children ages four-18 as well as coexistence, kindergarten, and special programs for at-risk and developmentally challenged children.
The ITC sites “offer so much more than tennis,” said Jackie Glodstein, vice president of global development at the New York City-based ITC Foundation office. “They provide a loving, nurturing environment and a place where children can come, be happy, be themselves, make friends, and learn about respect, sportsmanship, and coexistence — skills they can use their whole lives.”
On June 8, four children representing the ITC, including Pashaev, were all smiles as they visited the Short Hills home of Randi and Eric Sellinger for a unique Shabbat supper and celebration.
In presentations that included spirited group singing, the kids shared their personal stories and experiences at the ITC with the 50-plus guests and supporters at the event.
Dana Kamyshev, 15, a bubbly teen whose parents were born in Russia, trains at the ITC in Haifa. She speaks Hebrew, Russian, and English fluently, and said she hopes to earn a scholarship to play tennis at a college in the United States.
“I came to the Tennis Center when I was eight and was really shy and used to hide,” said Dana, who is part of the ITC’s High Performance Program and who now helps younger kids develop their skills. “I’m at the center from 4-8 p.m. every day, and it’s become like a second home. I can’t imagine my life without the Tennis Center.”
Henri Doukhan, 14, who made aliya from France by himself six years ago to join his sister in Israel, both lives and trains at ITC in Ramat Hasharon. He described the tremendous improvement in his athletic abilities, grades, language skills, and outlook since enrolling in the center a year ago.
The youngest visitor was Oshri Ayalo, nine, who made aliya from Ethiopia with his family within the past year and trains at the ITC in Ashkelon. He is learning both Hebrew and English and experiencing modern society for the first time. He said, in a bio provided by ITC, that he dreams of one day becoming “the first Ethiopian to represent Israel in the Davis Cup.”
Alan Goldner of Mountain Lakes, president of the ITC Foundation, has long championed the centers and their mission, including a recent effort to expand its programs for Bedouin children.
“The kids benefit through the elite sport of tennis,” said Goldner. “Tennis is an individual sport that each child plays on his or her own, but it requires discipline, has a dress code, and the kids must shake hands at the end, all activities that build character.
“From their diverse backgrounds, these kids acquire so many important life skills through the ITC and truly become champions of their families, schools, communities, and Israel.”
The youngsters were accompanied on their Short Hills visit by Yoni Yair, development director at the ITC Foundation’s Florida-based office; Rakefet Benyamini, manager of the Jaffa ITC; and ITC alum and star athlete Nadine Fahoum.
“We love Israel, kids, and tennis, so this has been a natural event for us to host,” said Randi Sellinger, who with her husband, Eric, and Anna Fisch and Terri and Mark Friedman, chaired the event.
Benyamini came up through the ITC herself, winning both an Israeli Junior and National Tennis Championship in 1981 at age 16; that background, she said, made her return to ITC as a manager in 2007 that much sweeter.
“We work with a lot of underprivileged children at our center and a smile or a hug from a kid means so much — it’s the best feeling you can have,” said Benyamini, 46. “We use the tool of tennis to upgrade their lives. If I can make one child smile, I’ve had a good day. My dream is to bring as many children as possible to the Tennis Centers so we can help them build a better future. These children are the face and future of Israel.”
When asked what he likes best about the Israel Tennis Centers, Oshri did not hesitate to provide his answer in perfect English: “Everything,” he exclaimed.
For more information on the ITC, visit www.israeltenniscenters. org.