The sneakers of the players squeaked against the court floor, as opponents alternatively lunged and retreated while striking the small hollow sphere. Encouraging shouts of “Yalah!” and “Kadima!” were called out by the coaches to the SquashBond Jewish and Israeli-Arab squash team. SquashBond is an organization that unites Jewish and Israeli-Arab children and teens through the sport of squash. The players hail from the same geographical boundaries but are socially and culturally worlds apart.
SquashBond delegates just completed a pre-Passover, whirlwind multicultural sports-oriented mission in the United States, called, “Ambassadors of Hope.” Their goal was to introduce the team to the outside world, and, likewise, expose others to the wonderful possibilities of peace and friendship that the team fosters. Their jam-packed itinerary included, a meeting and video interview with the Israeli consulate and an opportunity to meet and hit with Egypt’s squash champion, Hisham Ashour. They also interacted and played against fellow squash enthusiasts at the Princeton Club, Harmonie Club and the Racquet Club of Philadelphia. Mika Bardin, an Israeli-American and the number one squash player in the United States in the U15 division, hosted and greeted them as an emcee at a reception at the Harmonie Club. Squashbond delegates were also fortunate to hear from a coalition of interfaith experts such as Rabbi Joe Schwartz of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) and Haroon Moghul, a fellow in the Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Hartman Institute. They also shared their message of hope with the congregation of the prestigious, Central Synagogue, which was welcomed with great acclaim.
SquashBond ambassadors, Boaz Hirsch, Leen Fadila, Guy Manzur and Shahd Bshara played against fellow teen squash athletes, at their first-ever international squash tournament in the Ninth Annual StreetSquash Jr. Cup Tournament in Harlem, a fundraiser for StreetSquash.
StreetSquash is an after school enrichment squash program for underprivileged minority students. The StreetSquash Tournament integrated many squash teams from the local private high schools including Horace-Mann and Spence, and athletic clubs such as the Union Club and the Harvard Club in New York City. A big crowd of parents, supporters and friends came and cheered in celebration of sportsmanship, regardless of race, religion or social standing.
In 2012, Nitzan Moree, a long-time squash coach and previous member of Israel’s national junior team, co-founded SquashBond. He recognized that the Jewish and Arab communities living in Israel simply share the land, but rarely coexist. This segregation has been perpetuated for decades, if not centuries, of political and religious differences exacerbated by the media. It is no wonder that fixed ideas are formed about the opposite group without any contact whatsoever. Moree thought that creating one-on-one group interactions could help change the perception of the stigma of “the Arabs” and “the Jews” dichotomy. His plan to counterbalance this, was to create positive interactions through the game of squash.
Moree visited the Al-Zahara school in the Muslim city of Tira, 20 minutes away from the cosmopolitan city of Raanana. Although in close geographical proximity, these cities are drastically different in the culture and amenities. Moree’s hope was to recruit about 20 Israeli-Arab kids, who were willing to play squash with Jewish kids, at a squash court in Raanana. To his surprise, 100 Israeli-Arab kids signed up, eager to play. Although the Israeli-Arab and Jewish children did not speak a common language, they managed to create a connection through squash, and a form of communication among themselves. Today, SquashBond fosters Israeli-Arab and Jewish friendships, that otherwise would never have formed. “We focus on building a culture of cooperation and leadership utilizing squash as a catalyst” said Moree.
SquashBond introduced the students in the Israeli-Arab schools to the sport of squash. There are no Israeli-Arab squash coaches, or squash courts for that matter. Due to Nitzan Moree’s efforts, Jews and Israeli-Arabs play squash together in two locations, renting courts in Haifa and Raanana.
Seventeen-year old SquashBond player, Boaz Hirsch and his family made aliyah, officially emigrating to Israel from Colorado three years ago. But he began playing squash with his grandfather at the age of eight. Boaz plays squash everyday with SquashBond and also coaches 9-11-year-old girls as the program continued to expand. “On the first day, I saw the Jewish girls with their friends, and the Arab girls with their friends. There was no interaction at all, and you could feel the tension. They couldn’t talk to each other because the Arabs did not know Hebrew and the Jews did not know Arabic,” explained Hirsch. As a coach, Boaz had to be expressive with body language, to convey what he wanted to communicate about the sport. One year later, the Israeli-Arab girls know Hebrew very well and are great friends with the Jewish girls. “You could not tell any difference between them, they hug each other each time they see each other,” said Hirsch. Hirsch’s family is completely supportive of his participation in SquashBond and overall bonding with Arabs. However, Hirsch is the only kid in his entire school that has Arab friends, and some of his classmates do not have positive views on Arabs, despite never personally interacting with them.
SquashBond is dissolving some of the common tensions between Jews and Arabs, and these kids are emerging not only as great squash players, but more importantly, role models. They proved that with personal interactions, Jews and Arabs can get along, thrive and learn from each other. SquashBond delegate, Shahd Bshara lives in the Muslim city of Tira. Nitzan Moree introduced the SquashBond program to her school four years ago, and since then, Bshara fell in love with squash, became fluent in Hebrew and made many Jewish friends. Bshara was reluctant to join SquashBond originally, being that she did not speak any Hebrew, and she thought it would be uncomfortable to play with Jews. Her community was also shocked to hear that she would join the program. Despite this hesitancy, Bshara participated, and rose in the ranks, even competing in the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish and Israeli sports event, similar to the Olympics. This event is mainly attended by Jews, but Bshara explained that “it was amazing to be around 30,000 people who are cheering and supporting us.” Bshara recognizes that there will always be people who are not supportive of her playing with Jews, and she was in a similar mindset at the beginning as well, but SquashBond quickly became her “second family.” Bshara thinks the mixed-cultural interactions are great, and she is proud to be an example for other kids in her community in Tira.
Another member of the SquashBond team is 15-year-old Guy Manzur, who is Jewish Israeli,. As he continued to play squash with SquashBond, Manzur came to understand that Arab teenagers are just like him and his Jewish friends at school. Now great friends with fellow Israeli-Arab squash players, Manzur is also the only student at his school that has Arab friends. “I talk with them [Israeli-Arabs] about everything,” said Manzur. As he warmed to the Israeli-Arabs on the court, his family became supportive of these friendships, and cheer for both the Jewish, and Israeli-Arab players at squash tournaments. After games, “My parents and other Jewish parents tell me and my Arab friends that we played really well, and they high-five both of us,” said Manzur.
SquashBond is not only creating an environment for its players to bond, but their families and communities are interacting with their counterparts as well. It is unusual for Jewish adults to interact with Arabs and vice versa. “I did not meet an Arab until I was in my twenties,” said Nitzan Moree. Yet, these barriers are being broken, and it is becoming more common for the two groups to interact, and SquashBond is fostering this. Hopefully in the near future, Manzur will not be the only student in his school who is friends with an Israeli-Arab.
SquashBond is opening many doors for its players and serves as a gateway of opportunity. Hirsch, recently won his first tournament in Kiev. Additionally, Bshara and Boaz will soon fly to Holland to represent the National Israeli Team in the European championships. Bshara was also featured on the cover of a publication of Yediot HaSharon last year. During the team’s visit to New York City, at the SquashBond reception fundraiser at the Harmonie Club, the players spoke on a panel, discussing how SquashBond impacted their lives. They are all eager to improve the international ranking of Israel in squash. Bshara hopes to continue traveling the world as an ambassador for squash and would like to coach for a team consisting of all different religions – Muslims, Jews and Christians. In her town of Tira, there is no squash club. One of Bshara’s many goals is to encourage other kids in Tira to play squash, and to be the first coach of a team in Tira’s own court. The other Israeli-Arab female SquashBond player also from Tira, Leen Fadila, hopes to become the first-ever Arabic speaking squash coach in Israel. Fadila and Bshara are both leaders and ambassadors for Arab/Jewish relations for their community through squash.
I was most fortunate to host the players and their coaches for dinner at my home during their visit to New York. I witnessed firsthand the genuine friendship they have formed among themselves. Thus, my family and I could bear witness to the incredible success of this program. We feel honored and humbled to have experienced this first hand. Were it not for the opportunity to host this incredible group of student athletes, it is highly unlikely that we would have been exposed to the camaraderie of Jewish and Israeli-Arabs. We can only hope that the message and mission of SquashBond can influence the communities at large and that they can spread their mission of hope and peace.
Samantha Sinensky is a sophomore at The Ramaz School in Manhattan.