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Soccer for Peace, A Common Goal: Uniting Arab and Jewish Youth

By Renee Baiorunos

The winning team (Salvator Ferragamo) of the Soccer for Peace Cup.When Ori Winitzer originally created Soccer for Peace he envisioned a one–time event that would raise funds for soccer equipment in the integrated Israeli town of Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam, Hebrew and Arabic for Oasis of Peace. Despite Winitzer’s short-term intentions, Soccer for Peace proved to have long-term potential.   

Winitzer, at the time a Columbia Business School graduate student with an already full schedule and an investment-banking career on the horizon, was driven to action by the 2002 Passover terrorist bombing in Netanya. 

“As an Israeli-American I felt compelled to stand against the frustration in the Middle East, and as a soccer fan I am familiar with the binding power of the world’s most popular game,” Winitzer explained.
 
“I knew that Neve Shalom was a town that was specifically created on the premise of achieving a peaceful co-existence,” Winizter said, “and that they were a model of what can be achieved between all Jews and Arabs.  Soccer is the one thing I discovered that both Jews and Arabs share a passion for, and it’s the one thing that can bring them all together, even for the people beyond the borders of Neve Shalom.”

The success of the fundraiser attracted support from influential New Yorkers, most significantly former prosecutor John Yacos and Natalie Hahn, a former senior official for the United Nations’ Fund for International Partnership Organization to help Winitzer develop his initiative.

Five years later, on June 19th about 300 people gathered at Chelsea Piers Sunset Terrace to celebrate the effort of Soccer for Peace and on June 21st at Chelsea Piers and Chelsea Waterside Park on Manhattan’s West Side, some 300 people practiced what the camp teaches: they played soccer for a full day to have fun, learn some, raise money and support the efforts some 5,000 miles away.

As Winitzer reflects on the organization’s success five years later, he credits Yacos and Hahn for pushing his efforts beyond supplying soccer equipment and to move forward in developing sustainable peace keeping efforts. 

Yacos encouraged Winitzer to develop a specific curriculum to teach the youth to appreciate and value the cultural differences between their teammates.  While Hahn was responsible for getting Winitzer into the UN sponsored World Athletic Federation in Switzerland and introducing him to the world sporting community. 

“When John and Natlie joined me, Soccer for Peace took on a new and specific goal, which we plan to reemploy over and over again in other areas where there is cultural religious and ethnic differences.”

Now, Soccer for Peace has blossomed into an ongoing peace-building effort with a mainstay of youth soccer programs developed for Arab and Jewish youth in Israel.

The first soccer program kicked off only two years after the initial fundraiser.  In 2005 Soccer for Peace held its first overnight camp, providing intensive soccer training and dialogue workshops to 25 Arab and 25 Jewish children in Israel.  Since that first year the camp has grown and the camp that begins in Israel on July 13 will include 100 campers.  On a typical day the campers partake in two high impact training sessions, two hour-long dialogue session and cultural activities. Special activities such as excursions to one another’s towns (i.e. Arab and Jewish), to one another’s mosques and synagogues, visits to professional teams and a barbecue for the parents serve to round out the program and include others in the organization’s activities. Campers mix not only on the field and in the classroom but in the dorms as well.

Following the overnight camp’s initial success, Soccer for Peace sought to expand its program offerings to ensure sustained contact among the youth.  In 2007 the organization partnered with the Maccabim Association, the community services arm of famed soccer club Maccabi Tel Aviv. This partnership helped to spur Soccer for Peace’s programming as together the organizations launched a year long soccer academy last October.

Participants in the year long program originated from the summer overnight camp and now reunite three to four times per week. The program itself is rooted on the same three pillars as previous summer camps: top notch soccer training, bilingual dialogue workshops and a series of ongoing social excursions. What began as training over the summer now manifests itself in competition, the mixed teams of Soccer for Peace compete as teammates against other municipalities.

As the Soccer for Peace teams play league matches, the youth come together to compete, and the families come together— Arabs and Jews alike — to cheer them all along.

"You see Jewish families and Arab families supporting the same team; they cheer for the same children. They come together and become friends, building trust and confidence," said Assaf Toledano, director of the Israeli Maccabim Association, a partner of Soccer for Peace.

"It's really wonderful and amazing."

While the international programs have developed and overseas partnerships have grown, so has the organization’s local support. Recently, Mayor Bloomberg, Senator Clinton, the New York Red Bulls and adidas all pledged their support for Soccer for Peace through various commitments and donations.

Senator Clinton commended the organizations’ success as she stated “Soccer for Peace’s innovative programs creates a culture of community through team work and sportsmanship.  I commend Soccer for Peace and the service it provides for the young people of today and tomorrow.”

This growing recognition and institutional support is a driving source of encouragement as Winitzer leads the organization’s strategy and growth purely out of goodwill in his ‘spare time.’  As an investment banker and father of two, this naturally is no small feat. 

In order to accomplish all that he envisions, Winitzer has attracted a volunteer team of local New York young professionals to help drive the organization’s development and awareness efforts.   The drive from his young leaders was impressive as many treated their positions as seriously as they do their professional commitments.

Irene J Kim, director of this year's gala and a former classmate of Winitzer's at Columbia suggests there were days when she may have felt like she was working two full time jobs: as an event planner and as a financial services professional during the months leading up to the gala.

"There is no question there were days when felt in over my head. In addition to working my normal job during the day, my evenings were filled with planning for the gala. The month leading up to the event were particularly time consuming, but on the day of the gala, as Ori and I were weaving through the city in a U-Haul running last minute errands, I told him that I'd do this all again in a New York minute. And I still mean it!"

The success of the gala was followed by the first Soccer for Peace Cup, an all day soccer tournament that brought together some 300 players comprising 32 teams for a glorious day celebrating the sport in New York City.  Between the gala, the tournament entries and the corporate support, approximately $100,000 was raised to support Camp Coexistence.  

While the local fundraising efforts are half a world away from the program’s impact, the importance of is clearly understood.  The funds may be raised in the city, but the impact is felt halfway around the world as the funds will be put directly to work in July with the next extension of Camp Coexistence.

As the organization efforts and programs grow, the grassroots strategy remains.

"Peace is not something that is legislated," explained Winitzer, “It can only be built between individuals."

Winitzer believes relationships formed at Camp Coexistence will make a lasting impact on the children, changing minds and closing the gaps in their lives and ultimately, around the world.

For more information on Soccer For Peace and Camp Coexistence visit www.soccerforpeace.com.


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