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Feb 5, 2024

Israeli Youth Basketball Team Enjoys Respite in South Florida

It was 10 days of new friendships, home hospitality, touring, learning about other cultures, and lots of basketball, thanks to a local communitywide effort to bring 26 members of an Israeli youth basketball team to South Florida to escape the horrors of the ongoing war with Hamas. Initiated by the nonprofit Project 24, the week-long visit, January 30-February 7, was a collaboration between the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Jewish Federations of Broward County and South Palm Beach County, two Jewish community centers, several synagogues and dozens of generous donors and volunteers, all of whom worked together to ensure that the teens had a much-needed respite in South Florida and the chance to compete in a basketball tournament on several local school courts. The flight, underwritten by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, landed at Miami International Airport on January 30 and was greeted by a cheering crowd, balloons and welcome signs, thanks to Federation’s Jewish Volunteer Center.

“It’s an amazing feeling ... to come here to play and forget a little bit about what is happening back at home,” said Sagie Katav, Coach of the Hapoel Hof Ashkelon team from southern Israel.

Many of the teens, all residents of kibbutzim near the Gaza border who have been displaced from their homes, had family or friends who were killed or kidnapped by Hamas on October 7. One player, 15-year-old Uriya, lost his father in the attack and his uncle is still being held hostage. The trip to South Florida was only the second time since that fateful day that the team members had been able to be together, as they have been scattered at locations across Israel.

“Project Basketball” was designed to unite the team and give them a time of healing, with many experiences — person to person, community to community — to lift their spirits. Organizers created a basketball “camp” at the Miami Beach JCC and Alper JCC Miami, and the group had the opportunity to compete against local teams from Scheck Hillel Community School, David Posnack Jewish Day School, Hebrew Academy and Katz Yeshiva High School. While in Miami, the team was hosted for overnight stays and meals by families in Pinecrest, went sightseeing, watched a Miami Heat game and had the opportunity to meet some of the players, among many other activities.

“It’s exciting, but because of the situation, it’s also scary to be here,” said Hapoel Hof Ashkelon player Guy.

“To be out of Israel, it’s kind of a relief,” added player Omer. “I still kind of miss my home, but it’s really fun to be here with my friends, too. We talk all the time. It’s hard, but we manage.”

JVC Chair of Project Basketball Beth Lazar, who hosted some of the players, said, “October 7 completely numbed everyone. All we wanted to do was help, but being physically so far away, it felt as if our hands were tied. I needed to do something hands-on, especially for the families and children who were displaced. So, when this opportunity was presented, I couldn’t think of anything better. As a mother of a 14-year-old son who loves basketball, providing a loving home and environment to Israeli teen boys here to ‘escape the nightmare’ they are living through touched my family’s heart in ways we could not imagine. I hope one day these boys understand that allowing us to welcome them into our homes was, by far, a much greater gift to us than anything we could ever give to them.”

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