Twenty-four very excited boys and girls from across Israel arrived at the President’s House in Jerusalem recently to take a group picture with President Rivlin and to tell him about their participation in The Equalizer (Sha’ar Shivyon in Hebrew), a national educational and sports organization that brings some of the most marginalized children together through their love of football (soccer).
The kids chosen for the special trip that day — based on their conduct in school and in The Equalizer’s study centers and sports activities — included Muslims, Bedouins, Jewish immigrants, Druze, and even a child of Eritrean refugees.
They are just a sampling of the 2,300 children involved in The Equalizer’s seventh year of operation. The program is based in 152 schools from the Golan Heights in the north down to Mitzpeh Ramon in the south.
Each participating school selects 15 pupils, aged nine to 14, deemed most in need of support both in school and after school. Each week throughout the year they receive two sessions of tutoring by college students and two sessions of coaching with an authorized soccer trainer. Once a month, the teams in each region gather for a tournament.
Founder and Executive Director Liran Gerassi explains that the project instills values such as mutual respect, tolerance and coexistence, while enhancing awareness of how education and organized sports can prevent violence, crime and racism.
“During the first year of my [Hebrew University] studies I volunteered to teach Hebrew to elderly new immigrants from Ethiopia and in my second year I decided to set up a project for their children,” Gerassi tells ISRAEL21c.
“So I started a project that combines my great love (and especially children’s great love) – football — with essential kids’ needs such as role models, educational assistance and social and emotional empowerment, enhancing self-esteem and a sense of belonging.”
The Equalizer began in seven elementary schools in Jerusalem and grew from there due to high demand and impressive results, he says.
Expenses are covered by Israeli sponsors including companies, colleges, universities and government ministries, as well as UK bodies such as the British Embassy and the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Gerassi says UJIA’s support over the past three years made it possible to expand to the north and build capacity and management capabilities.
More than 400 Jewish and Arab volunteers provide the backbone of The Equalizer, serving in roles from tutors to coaching assistants. Many are part of the post-high school National Service program.
“They work with a sense of mission and belief in their work and in their ability to influence the next generation of the community in which they live, as well as the entire state of Israel,” says Gerassi.
Making ‘the other’ a non-issue
Not surprisingly, most of the children are more passionate about the sport than about the academic piece of the program. “The main way to overcome this challenge is to set a condition for the participant,” Gerassi says. “The Equalizer is a whole package; either you participate in it all, or you don’t participate at all.”
He says it’s also challenging to make Arab and Jewish kids feel comfortable with one another at the monthly tournaments. His strategy is to make this a non-issue by emphasizing the sport.
“It’s difficult at the beginning, but as the year goes on, the kids on both sides understand that they are part of the same league, where their rights are equal, just like football rules are equal for everyone and apply to all. Focusing the kids on football keeps them passionate and concentrated on their goals.”
Furthermore, the children’s participation in the sport days depends solely on their behavior, efforts and attendance in school and in the educational activities of The Equalizer, he says. “In cases of racism, violence or criminality of any kind, the player will be suspended from the team’s activities.”
Sometimes parents are reluctant to send their kids to tournaments in a neighboring town where the residents are of a different culture. Gerassi and his staff spend time allaying their fears.
Ofir, an Ethiopian-Israeli boy from the Upper Galilee town of Karmiel, was one of the children chosen to meet the president. He told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth that he loves soccer and immediately accepted his school’s invitation to join The Equalizer.
“Thanks to this program, I’ve met new friends and gained confidence not only in sportsmanship but also in my personal life,” he said, adding that he never imagined he would ever meet a VIP such as Rivlin.
Majid from Sakhnin, an Lower Galilee Arab town, told the reporter that the program has made him a better person. “This project has given me a chance to make connections with Jewish friends, and that is so much more than a game.”
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