Israel’s conflict in Gaza turned a local exchange program into a one-way visit by teenagers from the southern Israeli town of Ofakim.
Normally, the Hoop Connections basketball program, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, brings together New Jersey and Israeli teenagers to coach kids here and in Ofakim, one of the federation’s partnership communities.
This summer, three Israelis came to join the three local counterparts. The boys had a jam-packed week of work and fun — and then found the second half of their program, the Israel segment, cancelled.
The boys were told about the change on Wednesday afternoon, half a day before they were to set out together from Newark Liberty Airport for Israel.
“They were sad, disappointed, and angry,” said Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas associate with the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center.
Although the FAA had lifted a travel ban to Ben-Gurion Airport, conditions in Israel made it impossible to continue the program.
“The space that they would have used in Ofakim is being used by the army,” explained Brokman.
Craig Goldman, who started Hoop Connections five years ago and has run it ever since, was philosophical about the change. “We’ve had a great time,” said Goldman, athletic director at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The boys, chatting on Wednesday before coaching three groups of campers at the JCC of Central NJ, agreed. The coaches, all high school sophomores or juniors, were chosen for their eagerness to work with younger children — a skill set much on evidence as they dealt with dozens of kids with patience and kindness.
The “Ofakimniks” — Afik Edri, Matan Kabassa, and Oren Sananes — had arrived with their coach and chaperone Meir Dayan on July 16. They met the American boys — Sam Berkley of Maplewood, Eden Cohen of Springfield, and Nadav Adler of West Orange — over breakfast at Goldman’s home in West Orange.
On a visit to New York, they saw a WNBA game at Madison Square Garden and explored Times Square, Broadway, and Rockefeller Center.
The rest of the week brought that same mix of tourism, socializing, and basketball. They conducted clinics at the YMCA in Montclair, JCC MetroWest’s Camp Deeny Riback in Flanders, the YM-YWHA of Union County, and for Camp Yachad participants at the Central JCC in Scotch Plains.
It wasn’t the easiest of times for the Israelis to be so far from home. Afik said they had had a great time and he wished he could be in the United States longer — but maybe at another time when things are calmer at home.
“I hear not a lot of things from my family,” he said. “There are alarms and there are terrorists — but they are fine.”
Brokman said organizers hoped there might still be a way to reschedule the Israel visit later this year.
One of the Americans, Eden — who was born in Haifa and whose dad is Israeli — did go back with the Ofakim contingent, as did Goldman.
Eden told NJJN, “I will be in a safe area. I will be staying with family in the North in Yohanan.”
Goldman has a son serving in the Israeli army and another in Israel with a group from Kushner. He had planned to spend time there after the coaching program. “I don’t really have any fears about going,” he said.
Addressing the youngsters minutes before heading to the airport, Goldman said, “You guys are our shlihim [ambassadors] for Hoop Connections, and we expect you to talk it up so we can keep the program healthy and running on the Ofakim side and the Greater MetroWest side.”
Basketball, he told them, is just a hook. “The real program is that we have six teens who had never met before, and they connected in a way that is unique,” he said. “They met over 300 kids this week, including the non-Jewish kids in Montclair.”