Israeli businesswoman and avid “social jogger” Shirith Kesher didn’t set out to form Israel’s largest youth athletics club. She only wanted to prove to a friend that lack of opportunities was the reason so few girls from Israel’s Ethiopian community were competing in running sports. Her friend insisted the reason was lack of interest.

“So I established a team for girls at a school for immigrants in South Tel Aviv, and by the end of the year we had a great team of 20 girls,” says Kesher, founder of Alley Runners (Ratzei Hasimta in Hebrew).

“The boys wanted it as well so we opened a long-distance running group with 40 kids and won some championships in Israel. Once we succeeded, we hired Yuval Carmi, a professional coach.”

That was six years ago. Today, the nonprofit Alley Runners has about 70 runners in its senior track and 100 junior runners, aged 14 and 15.

The program is active in five schools in Tel Aviv and one in Or Yehuda, while another chapter is forming in Beit Shemesh. Most, but not all, the participants are Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel in the last five years. Some are African refugees, a few are native Israelis.

The club helps the newcomers integrate into society in many ways, says Kesher, and above all primes them to be professional runners. One female Eritrean participant is currently on a full athletic scholarship to Florida International University.

Female participants in Alley Runners. Photo by Tibor Jäger

“To get accepted, you just have to join. We don’t care about your color or where you come from. We have kids who broke Israeli sports records and placed in European championships. But you don’t have to be the Israeli national champion. As long as you are serious, you can stay,” Kesher tells ISRAEL21c. “You have to learn to sleep well, eat well and behave well.”

Four Alley Runners have qualified for the European and World Junior and Youth Athletics Championships, and in 2016 Alley Runners won second place at the Balkan Cross Country in the under-23 age group and third place for under-20.

The club’s seniors and juniors were ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, at the 2017 European Club Cross Country championships.

Six juniors and six seniors competed in the 2018 European Champion Clubs Cup Cross Country in Portugal. The under-20 team came in fourth, while the older group placed 13th out of 22 teams. One Alley Runner, age 15½, placed seventh overall.

Alley Runners on the way to the opening ceremony of the European Youth Olympic Festival in Hungary, July 2017. Photo via Facebook

Eden Katsir, 22, came in last among the senior Alley Runners in Portugal but that didn’t get him down.

“Alley Runners is a group of top-class runners, so if someone is having a bad day it doesn’t matter because the others make up for it,” says Katsir, who competes in middle- to long-distance runs of 1,500 to 10,000 meters on the track, as well as cross-country and occasional road races.

Alley Runner Eden Katsir competing in Portugal, February 2018. Photo via Facebook

He joined Alley Runners after his military service. “Before that, I was one of the top three youth runners in Israel, and when I got out of the army I wanted to get back into running. I knew the coach, Yuval Carmi, from before, and he told me to come to an Alley Runners practice and see if I liked it.”

Katsir, a resident of Even Sapir outside Jerusalem, practices twice a week with the group and recently quit his job as a strength trainer to help organize the new Beit Shemesh chapter of Alley Runners.

‘You can be professional in anything’

Kesher says she sees her job as a door opener. “I can’t do the hard work for them; I can only give them the opportunity,” she says.

Each participant pays a small symbolic annual membership fee. Alley Runners is supported by “a lot of good people” and corporate sponsors including Altshuler Shaham asset management group of Tel Aviv and Yuval Sela’s restaurant management group, as well as the Israel State Lottery.

“All the funds go through my family’s Yehoraz Foundation, established in memory of my brother,” says Kesher, the mother of three daughters.

“We are all volunteers, including the physicians and dieticians. The coaches get paid, but not as much as they deserve. We have a coach-training track for athletes in the group, so most of the kids are now coached by alumni.”

For Kesher, Alley Runners is a step to something greater.

“If you come to us, that means you aspire to be a professional and we’ll help you. Once you accept that you can be professional in sports, you can be professional in anything in life.”

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