Young Israeli, U.S. tennis players build ‘bridges’ in Newport


NEWPORT – On a recent warm, sunny August day, tennis players from Newport and Israel showed that two cultures really can communicate through sport.

TeamFAME, from Newport, and a team from the Israel Tennis and Education Centers (ITEC) participated in the inaugural “Building Bridges Through Tennis,” a three-day event at the Tennis Hall of Fame that began Aug. 21.

Both organizations bring tennis to children who might not otherwise be exposed to the sport, and both use the lessons of tennis to help teach life lessons to the young players.

In the U.S., TeamFAME is part of the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network, which has 250 chapters across the country. The Newport players are students at Thompson Middle School, near the Tennis Hall of Fame, at 194 Bellevue Ave. FAME stands for Future Aces Modeling Excellence.

Newport participants start the year-round program in fifth grade and graduate in eighth grade. In addition to tennis, they get support in academics and personal enrichment, according to Marguerite Marano, director of the program. TeamFAME, which started in 2018, recently graduated its second class of eighth graders.

The Israeli team operates on a similar model, according to Yoni Yair, senior vice president of development, who led this delegation in the U.S.

The ITEC operates 23 centers across Israel, aiming at underserved children. The centers offer training for special-needs players, have workshops for girls and serve a multicultural population. Players often graduate from the program and return as coaches.

One of the ITEC participants in Newport, Rotem Ashkenazy, 24, is hearing impaired, and returned to the group to coach after serving in the Israel Defense Forces. She is a world-class tennis player, participating in competitions in Europe.

Yair, who started as a student when the ITEC program began in 1976, told the story of how he went through the program and returned as a counselor and coach after serving in the IDF. He’s now been in the U.S. for 18 years, leading the program and raising funds to keep the Israeli centers going.

“This program saved my life,” he said, explaining that he was an at-risk kid when he started.

“By empowering these kids, we are strengthening Israel,” he said.

The Israeli delegation’s stop in Newport included social activities with the Newport players, a reception Monday evening that was attended by Meron Reuben,  the consul general of Israel to New England, and a lot of tennis. The Newport visit was part of the group’s participation in tennis demonstrations up and down the East Coast.

As part of their preparation, the American players attended four sessions at Temple Shalom, in Middletown, to learn some Hebrew and a bit about Israeli culture and geography. The players also got a taste of Israeli food and learned to write their names in Hebrew transliteration.

All of the kids were enthusiastic about playing, especially on the hall of fame’s grass courts.

“The balls bounce differently,” a TeamFAME player said. “It’s fun,” she said.

One of the Israelis pointed out that they have no grass courts to play on in Israel.

The day included clinics, a Davis Cup-style tournament and an exhibition match featuring adult players. In the exhibition match, the children played alongside the adults, and the competition was fierce. In the end, there were high-fives and handshakes all around.

While some awards were presented, the adults in the program said the real point was to build bridges – so all the participants were winners.

FRAN OSTENDORF is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.