Jino Nakhle, all of 12, recalls the moment with astonishing clarity. Just seven years ago, his father, then a soldier with the South Lebanese Army, broke the news to the family that they had to leave their home immediately — and forever. It was a simple question of survival.
Back in June 2000, Israeli premier Ehud Barak gave the order to withdraw the Israel Defense Force from southern Lebanon, where they had maintained a presence since 1982. The SLA, comprised mostly of Maronite Christians, had sided with Israel in its battle against Hezbollah; thus, they feared for their lives.
"I remember my father said that we have to run into the IDF before we run into Hezbollah. Thankfully, we ran into the IDF," said Jino.
The ultimate status of hundreds of south Lebanese refugees — whether they can remain in Israel or must return to Lebanon or go elsewhere — remains a contentious issue in Israel.
Flash-forward six summers to last July and August, and the rockets launched by Hezbollah that rained down on northern Israel, where Jino happened to live with his family. Talk about irony, or just some bad luck.
"It wasn't how much time I spent in the shelter, it was how many days — 24 days!" he said.
And he said that right here in the United States — at the Philmont Country Club in Huntingdon Valley.
What brought him and others like him so far from home? The same thing that sustained him during that month of terror and boredom: tennis, and hopes that the rockets would eventually stop falling and he'd be able to step on a court once again.
That's right — the kid from multiple war zones wants nothing more than to play the once patrician, and now increasingly global, sport of tennis.
Over the past three years, Jino has learned how to wield a racquet — and had the chance to improve his English and computer savvy — at the Israel Tennis Center's facility in Kiryat Shemona in the northernmost tip of the Jewish state. He and three other Israeli kids recently spent three weeks touring the United States as part of a fundraising effort to boost the center's programs.
With 14 facilities throughout Israel — many in poor, underdeveloped areas, serving roughly 9,000 children and teens a week — the Israel Tennis Center comprises one of the largest social-service agencies in the Jewish state, and one of the biggest tennis schools in the world.
The organization was founded 30 years ago by a South African and five Americans, including the late Harold Landsberg, a lifelong Philadelphian. His widow, Marcy Landsberg, helped organize the June 20 demonstration and fundraiser at the Philmont Country Club.
Help From Their Friends
The existence of such a large program has helped land Israel on the tennis map. Shahar Peer, age 20 and ranked 16th in the world on the Women's Tennis Association tour (and who earlier this year made her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open), got her start at the Israel Tennis Center's flagship site in Ramat Hasharon. Andy Ram, 27, who won the 2007 French Open Mixed Doubles Championship, also trained there.
But molding elite players is only part of the story. The idea is to provide kids from all economic and religious backgrounds a chance to play the game, build confidence, make friends and introduce them to a new support system of adults who want them to succeed in life.
"Not everyone can be a champion, but everyone can enjoy being a part of this family," said Yoni Yair, a development associate with Israel Children's Centers, the American charity affiliated with Israel Tennis Center. "Every year, we bring over different kids from Israel to raise money for the centers."
The 30 or so people who attended had the chance to see a roughly half-hour-long demonstration of skills and drills. They also got to hear from the two boys and two girls.
In addition to Jino, the audience had the chance to meet 12-year-old-Melissa Abu Manneh, a Christian-Arab from Jaffa, and Gili Almagor, a 12-year-old Rosh Ha'ayin native who credits the adults at the center with helping her through the toughest year of her life, during which her father died of cancer and her best friend was killed in a car crash.
Then there was Emil Saveljev, the 10-year-old child of Russian immigrants, who is currently the top-ranked boy in Israel in his age group.
Emil, his head barely reaching above the net, appeared to glide around the court, seemingly putting every ounce of his strength into his forehands and backhands, easily managing a slew of volleys and overhead smashes at the net.
Then came the trick shot.
A coach lobbed the ball over Emil's head, and he spun around and attempted to thrust the racquet downward and hit the ball between his legs, over the net and in play on the other side.
He missed the first time but made his second attempt.
The other kids got to show off their skills, too, but Emil got the most stage time.
"I want to be No. 1 in the world. I want to [beat] Rodger Federer," he said, referring to the Swiss tennis star who many consider the best player of all time.
Yair admitted that while there are high hopes — although no certainties — for Emil, the other kids probably don't have much hope of reaching that level.
But don't tell them that.
Melissa said that she wants to play pro-tennis — but if that falls through, she wants to be an ambassador for Israel.
Gili said that she hopes to be the next Shahar Peer. Her second choice? A veterinarian.
And as for Jino?
"If I'm not going to be a tennis player, if it's not going to work, I want to be an engineer."