The Wheel Deal

Israel ParaSport Center’s ‘Hope in Motion’ tour rolls into Arizona, SoCal

Unable to make their normal trip to Europe, Israeli disabled basketball team comes instead to the West Coast, playing in exhibition games and meeting local supporters

The wheelchair basketball team from Israel ParaSport Center in Ramat Gan is usually Europe-bound in the spring, where they compete against European teams and interact with the local communities. 

But this year, the team was assigned to Turkey and the Israel Ministry of Sport — out of concern for the team’s safety and amid heightening tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem – called off the trip. Instead, the Center’s leadership suggested a U.S. exhibition tour, which became the “Hope in Motion Wheelchair Basketball Tour,” bringing the team of 10 players, all of whom have physical disabilities, along with two coaches and other staff, to locations in Southern California and Tucson, Ariz. 

During the West Coast visit earlier this month, the team traveled to schools, synagogues and JCCs, meeting and playing with students or other locals. At the Tucson JCC, the team played against University of Arizona, which — members of the leadership told eJewishPhilanthropy, is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. — and Southern Arizona Adaptive Sports Lobos. The team also scrimmaged with the local Angel City Sports LA Hotwheels wheelchair basketball team, hosted at Stephen Wise Temple, the students of which had previously used their tikkun olam (repairing the world) projects to raise funds to purchase wheelchairs for the Center.

Sarah Meisenberg, the Center’s director of international relations, who lives in Israel and is traveling with the team, told eJP that another goal for the tour was to connect with its West Coast supporters.

“We’re looking toward the future and trying to maintain that people-to-people connection and connect with our Jewish diaspora,” Meisenberg said, “because we know that especially since the war, a lot of people feel like they really want to connect with Israel. So we’re hoping to bring a little bit of Israel and our center to the U.S. and to our community.”

Marsha Katz Rothpan, the West Coast regional director of the Center (formerly known as American Friends of Israel Sport Center for the Disabled), said the tour was promoting “the unifying power of sport,” and that it also marked some of the athletes’ first trip to the United States.

The Israel ParaSport Center opened a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2012, but the organization was formed more than 60 years ago in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.  Today, the Center provides rehabilitative and competitive sports programs as well as social services to more than 3,000 children and adults with disabilities such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other conditions. 

In addition to wheelchair basketball, the Center’s rehabilitative and competitive parasports include tennis, table tennis, wheelchair rugby, soccer, swimming and goal ball, a paralympic sport resembling soccer, for players with visual impairments.

The Center in Israel has about 108 staff (about 30 are full-time), plus 150-200 volunteers who help out throughout the year. The U.S. organization is based in Chicago and has seven staff members in cities across the country.

The “American Friends” arm of Israel ParaSport Center — helmed by Lori Ann Komisar, the organization’s national president — sent $1.8 million of operating support in 2023, budgeted $2.2 million for 2024, which does not include additional needs following the Oct. 7 terror attacks and ensuing war. 

As part of the Center’s post-Oct. 7 $2 million Hope in Motion campaign, the Center raised an additional $260,000 to purchase two free-standing shelters, installed at the Center’s headquarters in January and made wheelchair-accessible “so that everybody feels safe on our campus,” the group’s national director, Jennifer Flink, told eJP. 

“Having underground shelters does not make sense for people with disabilities because getting them in an elevator… it just wouldn’t happen. You can’t get them there in 90 seconds [the amount of time between a siren sounding and the rocket’s impact],” Flink said. 

The donors who chaired the shelter fundraising effort joined the team for Shabbat dinner in L.A., along with regional leadership, “deepening our relationships and building new ones,” Flink said.

Post-Oct. 7, the Center created a new program —  SHESEK (an acronym for shikum, sport, kehilah, which means “rehabilitation, sport, community”) — one of a handful of official programs to receive funding and provide disabilities services to some of the more than 200,000 people who were displaced by the attacks, many of whom still are. 

In a video released last week by Boaz Kramer, the Center’s CEO, who was not on the West Coast tour, announced that center’s team members were going door-to-door in hotels and sites where there were evacuated refugees, offering services, and that the Center was waiting to be approved as an official rehabilitation center of the Israel Defense Forces.

The SHESEK program budget is $445,000 (NIS 1.75 million), with the Israel Social Security Development Fund providing $240,000 (NIS 900,000). The Center is looking for sources to fill in the difference.

On Wednesday, Rabbi Erez Sherman of L.A.’s Sinai Temple featured three of the Center’s athletes and their coach as guests on an episode of his “Rabbi on the Sidelines” podcast. Noting that the team includes Christians, Muslims and Jews from varying backgrounds and experiences among its members, Sherman said that the athletes illustrated an important lesson.

“[In the world] everybody’s canceling each other and dividing each other and to see that [athletes] from Russian Armenian and Jewish to Muslim, are all together because of basketball, I know it sounds very simple, but that model is one that I think we can take a lot from and to say that we have to keep living next to our difficulties,” Sherman said.

“We’re religion-blind,” said Flink. “The only thing you need to be a part of [this] community is to have a disability.” The group is multidiverse and multifaith, and all the team members “consider each other brothers,” she added. “If the world were like the Center, we’d have peace. Now is a time we need more teamwork and building together.” 

Tal Dagan, who at 17 is the team’s youngest player, was born with cerebral palsy and had started going to the Center for hydrotherapy programs when he was about 3 years old. Dagan told Sherman he loved basketball because “we can win together, and that’s why it’s the sport that gets me excited the most.” 

Hakim Kashua, who was born with spina bifida, told Sherman the team was “like my second family and, like, we love each other. We don’t care if you are a Muslim, Christian or a Jew or a Druze,” he said, adding that the players share common goals: “We want to win the games, we want to have fun and we all have disabilities.”

Center board member Lisa Roth, who is based in Los Angeles, said she grew up with the ParaSport Center  — then called the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled — because her mother, Ellen Hershkin, also a past national president of Hadassah — served as one of the Center’s original board members. Over the years, she told eJP, she met many of the athletes, accompanying them on their travels and observing their interactions with the people and places they visited.

“The Center gives people confidence,” Roth said. “It lets kids with disabilities participate in sports that they [otherwise] might not be able to do,” she added. While some players might use crutches or wheelchairs daily, she explained, most don’t, but wouldn’t “be able to run and compete with able-bodied kids. So it’s an equalizer.”

Not all the people served by the Center become parasport Olympians, Roth added. Rehabilitative programs serve other adults and children, and counseling and the facilities are open to the families as well.  

Flink said that between 40% and 50% of the Center’s staff members have disabilities of their own, and serve as role models that inspire them toward “achieving goals in life and empowering them to live life without limits. They can lead fulfilling, meaningful lives — just like anyone else — go to college, have a job, have a family, serve in the army, etc. Being active and happy is a result of all this.”

“One of the athletes said it best: it turns your disability into an ability, and I think that’s what the Sports Center does,” Roth said.