Ohad is a 16-year-old Israeli Jew. Mahadi is a 15-year-old Israeli Arab. Even though both live in the city of Akko, about 15 miles north of Haifa, they didn’t know each other and probably never would have.
However, Ohad and Mahadi were grinning on the Citi Open’s stadium court early on the morning of Aug. 5, after a brief, rain-delayed exhibition of their tennis skills.
The boys came together in Akko as members of a coexistence program of the Israel Tennis Center that was established in 2010. Part of the program was a 10-day trip to the United States that included high-profile stops in Washington — the Citi Open appearance and another at the Israeli Embassy — and featured a return visit to the homes of their Philadelphia pen pals, who came to Israel last month.
“When I have the opportunity to be in America and also to be in this program, it caused me to feel more excited,” Ohad said. “I have the opportunity to meet [Arabs] and be affected, not only by the news and what I hear from other people. I can have my own opinions. My school is mixed, but if you just go to school with a person, you don’t [necessarily] have the opportunity to know him, to know his tradition, to know when we are the same and when we are different. Here, I play with them, I eat with them.”
(At the request of officials, WJW is not including the participants’ last names for security reasons.)
Indeed, Shai, a 12-year-old Israeli Jewish girl, has had a sleepover at the home of Rajad, a 12-year-old Israeli Arab girl.
“The food was different,” Shai said through an interpreter. “The language was different.”
But, as Mahadi has discovered to his delight, the children have plenty in common.
“I have Jewish friends and Christian friends,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity you can find in just a few places all over the world. In Akko, in the Israel Tennis Center, you can find it a lot. We see that they have the same thinking, the same minds as us.
“We have a great time together. Our parents are good friends, too. We are the tool for our parents to become friends. We have a lot of things in common with kids from Philadelphia, too, music for example. That was surprising.”
The first Israel Tennis Centers were founded in 1976; there are now 14 scattered throughout the nation, offering programs for at-risk youth, those with special needs and aspiring elite players. Coexistence is an element of much of ITC’s work.
“It started as a way to create a safe place for kids after school in an area that had a lot of conflict,” said ITC Vice President Jackie Glodstein. “We’ve served over 500,000 kids, 20,000 a year now from early childhood through age 18. A lot of our alumni have gotten scholarships to study in the U.S. We use tennis as a vehicle to educate kids and teach them life skills and values.”
Elad Roth, who runs the Akko ITC, said that its coexistence programs have opened even some previously skeptical adult minds.
“I have had some Jewish parents say they don’t want their kids playing with Arabs and some Arab parents say they don’t want their kids playing with Jews,” Roth said.
“I tell them the kids are divided by age and level of tennis. That’s it. A few leave, but most of them stay because they want their kids to play tennis. At the end, they say their kids really like the center and want to continue next year. That’s kind of a thank you.”