Arab Sports in Israel: A Special Project

The handful of Arab tennis players in Israel have to join 'Jewish' clubs because of a lack of funds. A tennis school in the village of Jaljulya, run by a Jewish man and an Arab woman, is trying to change that.

Yael Engelhart

Jaljulya ranks low on Israel's socioeconomic scale. Half the hi gh-school graduates do not matriculate, and the average wage is half the national average.

Not exactly a typical hothouse for tennis, which is considered a rich man's sport. But Daniel Kessel and Iman Jabber thought otherwise.

A year ago the two tennis fans - a Jewish man and an Arab woman - established Jaljulya's first tennis school. Jabber was born and raised in Jaljulya, a village of 9,000 near Kfar Sava. She has been playing since she was a child and would watch matches on television. "Girls are not expected to go out much, so I would sit at home and watch tennis," she says.

Now she's a 40-year-old mother of two boys - Nadim, 14, and Amir, 9. Inspired by their mother, both have become keen tennis players, but due to the dearth of courts in Arab locales, they are forced to play on "Jewish" courts.

"Nadim is the only one who - I don't like to say 'Jew,' let's just say he spoke a different language - so he a was a little terrified at first," his mother says, recounting his early days on the court.

"Then his brother, who knows no shame, joined him. This helped Nadim's self-confidence grow. In every tennis center, including Ra'anana, we feel wanted and the boys are well accepted."

Yet for all that, the Jabber family still felt like Muslims among Jews. Two years ago the Ra'anana club had a chance to send one child abroad to train, and the children were asked to prepare a statement in English. The club's operators asked Nadim to write about being the only Muslim in a club of Jews. Nadim's English teacher refused to help him, declaring that Nadim was just like all the other boys, and therefore should write whatever he wanted - about his hobbies and pastimes, and why it's important for him to go. Nadim took this advice and described himself as a normal child, barely mentioning being "different." He did not receive the grant.

Nadim, who is 46th in his age group in Israel, and Amir, who is 16th, are regulars at the Ra'anana Tennis Center. "They are both very good for their ages," says Kessel, a nephew of Haaretz's late sports columnist Jerrold Kessel.

The Williams brothers

He believes both boys could go far as tennis players. "Nadim is an athlete with a good work ethic and he's level-headed. Amir is more emotional - he has the internal fire of a real athlete, and cannot lose."

Without inflating expectations, the pair could one day become the Venus and Serena Williams of Israel's Arab sector. One of their favorite exercises is strengthening their serve by hurling an old tennis racket. Kessel introduced them to this exercise after seeing the Williams sisters' father using the same training method on video.

Kessel, 31, moved to Israel with his family when he was 12. He has been involved in sport - any sport - for as long as he can remember. He began to coach tennis to fund his university studies. "One day a family from Jaljulya with two little boys turned up. I began coaching them and eventually realized just how much tennis is lacking in the Arab sector," he says.

Three years ago Kessel temporarily bid farewell to the Jabber family when he went to Britain to study for his master's degree in sports psychology. While abroad, his desire grew to return to Israel and bring people together through sport.

Kessel returned, called Iman, and the Jaljulya tennis school began to take shape.

He finished the first season on the court with seven boys and 28 girls. "Tennis is a sport that girls like, as can be seen everywhere in the world. Here in particular there's a lack of sports that attract girls and women," he says.

This season 70 children are taking tennis lessons - 50 girls and 20 boys. The spike in registration is mainly due to the hiring of two more coaches, Ibrahim Pahmawi and Hanin Nazal.

"The Jaljulya tennis school represents hard work and excellent coaching," says Nazal, 24, who grew up in the village and recently completed a degree in physical education and sport at the Wingate Institute.

"It's exciting to see so many children enjoying themselves and what a moving new experience it is for them. They always turn up on time and there are no discipline problems."

An unpaved gravel path leads to the court. Everyone in the village can point it out, and does so with pleasure. The court is dilapidated. It looks small, but once Kessel opens its gates, it fills with activity. Children come and go, cars enter and leave, Arabic and Hebrew mix. And rackets fly through the air.

Kessel registered the tennis school as a non-profit organization. He has managed to raise very few donations for necessary things, such as a professional coaches' course or the two floodlights (out of four ) that were donated by the Freddy Krivine fund.

Coexistence matches regularly take place between Jaljulya and nearby Ra'anana. The children on both sides enjoy the get-togethers, but more funding is needed if they are to become a regular occurance. Their success has inspired Kessel and Jabber to try to set up more tennis schools in the Arab sector.