A former New Jerseyan representing a Tel Aviv-based organization believes soccer can help change the world by bringing together Arabs, Israelis, and youngsters often at the fringes of society.
Michael Friedman, who grew up in West Orange and Livingston, is the “Mitzvah Project” manager for Mifalot Education and Society Enterprises, which focuses on sports as a means to encourage peace, hope, and change in the Middle East and internationally.
The “Mitzvah Project,” which launched March 1, allows bar and bat mitzva youngsters to adopt a youth team, contribute to a sports clinic, or sponsor a tournament in Israel.
The youngsters can designate whether they want to support through their tzedaka project youth at risk, children with special needs, or the empowerment of girls.
“This is an amazing opportunity for kids in the United States to get connected to Israel as well as to soccer and sports,” said Friedman, 26, in a phone conversation from Tel Aviv.
If such a program had existed when he became bar mitzva at B’nai Shalom in West Orange, said Friedman, “I would have jumped on it.”
Support from the project includes setting up a website so friends and family can donate.
“All the money will be going toward kids in Israel,” and when they complete their projects, the b’nei mitzva youngsters “will be able to see every step of the way how their money is helping,” said Friedman. “The money will go toward uniforms, equipment, training, all the items these kids need to be part of Mifalot.”
Mifalot has also arranged for the American youngsters and their families to receive discounted flights to Israel if they want to come and meet the players who have been helped by their projects.
The organization is the largest in the Middle East using sports as a platform for social change.
Friedman had the opportunity several years ago to go to the Palestinian Authority as part of a training course. “We had Israeli and Palestinian soccer coaches learning side by side,” he said. “The interesting thing is that the Israeli coaches said they had never really had a positive interaction with someone from the other side, and the Palestinians said the same thing.
“By the end of the weekend — and obviously there will always be differences — they all said they had connected through sports. This is exactly how Mifalot brings about peace through sports.”
In the more than 17 years since its founding, 250,000 children, adolescents, and young adults have participated in Mifalot programs. It primarily operates in 250 towns and villages in Israel, but runs activities across the globe. It now claims to reach 30,000 young people annually.
Several months ago, it organized a soccer tournament for youngsters living on a kibbutz near the Gaza border, many of whom were suffering from the stress of last summer’s warfare with Hamas.
Friedman, the son of Terry and Shari Friedman, is a graduate of Livingston High School who came to Israel in 2011 after graduating from Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. He was doing what was to have been a five-month stint with Career Israel, which brings over young Jewish adults for internships and volunteer work.
A soccer player in high school and college teams, Friedman learned about Mifalot through a friend who had interned with the organization. Friedman was put in charge of running its English website and marketing. He decided to stay with Mifalot, and after completing military service, returned to work on the idea of a bar and bat mitzva project.
Friedman compares Mifalot to the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America. It aims “to get kids off the street and reach those from poor homes…who are struggling.”
For information or to sign up, go to mifalot.co.il.