Lev­el­ing the play­ing field

An NGO lever­ages the love of soc­cer to trans­mit pos­i­tive val­ues to youth

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - SPFOEATTLU­IGRHET - • URI LEVY

On a soc­cer pitch in one of Jerusalem’s neigh­bor­hoods, Jewish, Mus­lim and Chris­tian kids are play­ing com­pet­i­tive soc­cer to­gether. At the end of the game, they share ges­tures of re­spect – shak­ing hands, hug­ging and laugh­ing and re­count­ing the high­lights of their match.

This pas­toral im­age is not a dream about what Jerusalem could be like with­out the po­lit­i­cal ten­sions be­tween Arabs and Jews, but a liv­ing and kick­ing re­al­ity in Is­rael. This is the re­al­ity of the unique pro­gram called The Equal­izer.

The Equal­izer pro­vides a so­cial, sport and ed­u­ca­tional frame­work for youth from Is­rael’s so­cial pe­riph­eries. It gives kids and young­sters from all so­cial sec­tors the op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice and play soc­cer, study and im­prove scholas­ti­cally, while strength­en­ing equal­ity, re­spect, co­ex­is­tence and tol­er­ance as guid­ing prin­ci­ples. The pro­gram was founded in 2009 by a group of stu­dents from the He­brew Uni­ver­sity of Jerusalem.

“We were three friends, teach­ing He­brew to adult olim from Ethiopia at the Lazarus com­mu­nity cen­ter in Tal­piot,” says Li­ran Gerassi, founder and CEO of The Equal­izer.

“Af­ter one class, we saw kids out­side, sit­ting on the side­walk, drink­ing al­co­hol and smok­ing cig­a­rettes. They had noth­ing to do, nowhere to go. We all loved soc­cer and were fans of the same soc­cer club. See­ing the kids like that got us think­ing about what we could do for them.”

From its mod­est be­gin­ning in a few Jerusalem neigh­bor­hoods, to­day The Equal­izer has mush­roomed into a suc­cess­ful pro­gram work­ing with kids and schools na­tion­wide to re­duce racism, vi­o­lence, drug and al­co­hol abuse and pro­mote a healthy life­style.

Through­out the school year, the or­ga­ni­za­tion es­tab­lishes soc­cer teams in schools, re­cruits staff (coaches, co­or­di­na­tors and tu­tors), man­ages the weekly rou­tine of two soc­cer prac­tices and two learn­ing ses­sions a week and pro­duces a monthly fes­tive re­gional tour­na­ment in­volv­ing all the teams from each re­gion. Dur­ing the ed­u­ca­tional ses­sions, tu­tors, who are mostly vol­un­teer col­lege stu­dents, as­sist the chil­dren with home­work and run in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties.

From that creative spark in Tal­piot, Gerassi has built an em­pire. While his two friends have moved on to other suc­cess­ful ca­reers, he stayed and took the pro­gram to the next level. The Equal­izer is now a home for 3,500 young play­ers in 230 teams from 200 schools in 13 re­gions – from the Golan Heights in the North to Ei­lat in the South.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­gram’s soc­cer ac­tiv­i­ties is con­di­tioned on par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ed­u­ca­tional meet-ups and scholas­tic per­for­mance. The staff of each team is in close con­tact with the teach­ers; par­tic­i­pa­tion in soc­cer ac­tiv­i­ties is al­ways co­or­di­nated with the ed­u­ca­tional au­thor­i­ties.

Half of the teams in the pro­gram go to schools in non-Jewish towns. The guides and tu­tors of each team are mostly lo­cal res­i­dents of the same town, flu­ent in the kids’ mother tongue.

At the monthly re­gional tour­na­ments, all teams from each re­gion com­pete in a fes­tive soc­cer event, pro­vid­ing a unique op­por­tu­nity for kids with dif­fer­ent cul­tural and re­li­gious back­grounds to com­mu­ni­cate, play and be­come friends with those who were com­plete strangers

– or even con­sid­ered en­e­mies – a mo­ment be­fore.

‘The Equal­izer is like a fam­ily. It en­riches your life with friends, soc­cer and knowl­edge’ – Yossi

“THE EQUAL­IZER is like a fam­ily,” says Yossi, a player in the Carmel re­gion of the pro­gram, with bright but shy eyes.

“It en­riches your life with friends, soc-

cer and knowl­edge.

There is no chance that you will feel bored or lost. Even out­side of school time or pro­gram hours, we get to­gether, prac­tice, play and talk.”

But the kids are not the only ones who ben­e­fit.

“Be­ing a guide in The Equal­izer is an amaz­ing feel­ing. It fills me with strength. I feel each one of the kids is like my lit­tle brother,” tes­ti­fies Ita­mar Eli, who started as a vol­un­teer guide in a learn­ing cen­ter a few years ago, and now is en­ter­ing his third year as the pro­gram’s Carmel and Lev Ha­galil re­gional man­ager, over­see­ing 24 soc­cer teams in 24 dif­fer­ent schools. “Soc­cer is the most im­por­tant thing for th­ese kids, yet through the frame­work of the pro­gram, they im­prove scholas­ti­cally and so­cially, de­velop friend­ships with kids from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and even­tu­ally be­come bet­ter peo­ple in so­ci­ety. It’s a win-win sit­u­a­tion.”

The guides and tu­tors are vol­un­teers with a sense of mis­sion of de­vel­op­ing the coun­try’s next gen­er­a­tion. Oc­ca­sion­ally, they be­come role mod­els for the kids they guide.

The pro­gram, which started eight years ago with only 100 kids, is de­vel­op­ing and ex­pand­ing ev­ery year. It is now in­volved in key part­ner­ships that in­clude the United Jewish Is­rael Ap­peal, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties through­out Is­rael, aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, the Is­rael Soc­cer As­so­ci­a­tion, the Is­rael Na­tional Lottery, the Sport Min­istry, lo­cal busi­nesses,

‘Soc­cer is the most im­por­tant thing for th­ese kids, yet through the frame­work of the pro­gram, they im­prove scholas­ti­cally and so­cially, de­velop friend­ships with kids from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and even­tu­ally be­come bet­ter peo­ple in so­ci­ety. It’s a win-win sit­u­a­tion’ – Ita­mar Eli

in­di­vid­ual donors, phil­an­thropic foun­da­tions from Is­rael and abroad and vol­un­teer-based or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“For sev­eral years, I had been think­ing about how to en­gage more girls in the pro­gram,” says Gerassi.

In gen­eral, The Equal­izer foot­ball teams are open for fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion, but due to lack of in­ter­est, the or­ga­ni­za­tion de­cided to open a new pro­gram es­pe­cially for them – Bo’atot (The Kick­ing Girls). This pro­gram will fea­ture girls’ foot­ball teams and in­clude lec­tures and work­shops on fe­male em­pow­er­ment.

“We thought about it as a pi­lot, but the re­sponse was so over­whelm­ing that we de­cided to open it as an­other pro­gram of our or­ga­ni­za­tion,” he smiles. This year, 24 girls’ teams will be par­tic­i­pat­ing na­tion­wide.

THE EQUAL­IZER is ex­pand­ing abroad, too. The Ser­bian gov­ern­ment re­cently de­cided to adopt the pro­gram’s model and im­ple­ment it in schools all over the coun­try, start­ing next year. Kenya and South Africa are also in­ter­ested in im­port­ing it. But in­ter­est in The Equal­izer be­yond Is­rael ac­tu­ally be­gan be­fore that.

Last sum­mer, the Jewish and Arab com­mu­ni­ties in São Paulo in­vited 22 kids from the pro­gram for a two-week tour in Brazil, sup­ported by the Brazil­ian soc­cer con­fed­er­a­tion.

“Two soc­cer teams – 11 Mus­lim kids and 11 Jewish kids from seam­line and east­ern Jerusalem neigh­bor­hoods – trav­el­ing to­gether to Brazil. It was a dream come true, not only for the kids, but also for us, for the project,” says Gabi Holzhacker, The Equal­izer’s spe­cial pro­jects man­ager.

Dur­ing their visit, the kids were the hon­orary guests in a match of Palmeiras, the Brazil­ian cham­pi­ons. They re­ceived gifts from the club, played on the pitch be­fore the match and walked hand-in-hand with play­ers be­fore in the pre-game cer­e­mony in front of an au­di­ence of 30,000 Brazil­ians.

When the del­e­ga­tion also watched Is­raeli ju­doka Yar­den Jerbi win a Bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the whole group – to­gether, with­out ex­cep­tion – cel­e­brated the na­tional achieve­ment.

One night dur­ing the trip, the kids were awake and anx­ious to do some­thing.

“They asked us to go to a nearby pitch in or­der to play soc­cer,” Holzhacker re­calls. “In­de­pen­dently, they split into two teams, com­pletely mixed, Jews with Arabs to­gether. This mo­ment high­lighted to me the power of The Equal­izer, and that ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble.”

Next year, there will be five mixed teams of Arab and Jewish kids to­gether from the Jerusalem area. They will prac­tice to­gether and com­pete as teams in the tour­na­ment.

“The core goal of The Equal­izer is for no kid to get lost with­out a frame­work or a place to go. We want to give an op­por­tu­nity to any child, any­where,” says Gerassi.

“My dream is that there will be an ‘Equal­izer’ in ev­ery coun­try – a place for kids from ev­ery back­ground that pro­motes soc­cer, stud­ies and pos­i­tive prin­ci­ples. This pro­gram has the po­ten­tial to build a bet­ter so­lu­tion for kids around the world,” he says. ■

(Adi Peretz)

THE EQUAL­IZER founder and CEO Li­ran Gerassi in­structs play­ers about the game and life.

(Arthur Denisov)

MONTHLY RE­GIONAL tour­na­ments bring to­gether kids from dif­fer­ent cul­tural and re­li­gious back­grounds.

(Shlomo Ova­dia)

BE­YOND SPORT, The Equal­izer pro­vides a so­cial and ed­u­ca­tional frame­work for youth from the pe­riph­ery.

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