In Jewish Baltimore, it is rare to find an organization that doesn’t have local philanthropic support. However, on March 2, Faith Harrison of Owings Mills hosted an organization looking for support from that brand of Baltimore generosity.
Representatives from the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled (ISCD) met local community members at Harrison’s home on their first visit to Baltimore in hopes of garnering support and expanding the organization’s presence in the United States.
The ISCD was founded in 1960 when disabled sports were still a controversial idea. Israel, along with the Unites States and United Kingdom, was a pioneer in the field. Today, the ISCD is one of the largest facilities in that world that is dedicated, managed and maintained exclusively for disabled athletes. The facility, located just outside of Tel Aviv, serves athletes from all over the country, from Be’er Shave to Netanya.
“Sports are important for anyone, but the main idea behind the sports center is that for people with disabilities, it is much more than that,” said Boaz Kramer, executive director of ISCD in Israel. “It is a community, it is their social reference point. I have heard it said that it takes a village to raise a disabled child, so we are that village.”
In addition to training and coaching facilities, the ISCD has a doctor and nutritional support.
Kramer is a product of the ISCD himself, having attended kindergarten and participated in the children’s program at the facility. A competitive para-athlete, Kramer played on the wheelchair tennis tour for about 15 years, ranking among the top 10 players in the world. He won a silver medal with his doubles partner at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and made it to the quarterfinals in the 2012 London Olympics.
One aim of the organization is not only to help the disabled children build strength through sports and sports therapy, but also to show them that a disability is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to success.
“We say, ‘No, [your body] is not the weakest link, you can do something with this — you can still swim, play basketball, run on the track and play with friends,’” said Kramer “Whether it is in local competition and they swim and win a bronze medal or a wheelchair basketball game when, after months of training, they are able to make a shot, they get that sense of success that they don’t get anywhere else.”
Jennifer Flink, executive director for the ISCD in the United States, was also in attendance at the March 2 event. While Kramer mostly focuses on operations in Israel, the U.S. side of the organization is focused on fundraising.
Forty percent of the organization’s funding comes from membership fees, renting out facilities and selling services such as rehabilitation to other organizations. However, the other 60 percent comes from outside funding, 80 percent of which comes from donors in the United States.
“The mission in Israel is to provide sports rehabilitation to children and adults with physical disabilities and to empower them to be meaningful citizens in society,” she said. “However, ours is strictly a fundraising organization so that they can fulfill their mission in Israel.”
Flink said the U.S. half of the organization, based in Chicago, hosts three major events each year and has pockets of supporters across the country. Her goal is to expand chapters throughout the country, which is what prompted them to visit Baltimore.
Harrison first learned about the organization herself when she was in Israel for a bar mitzvah and visited the ISCD as part of a mitzvah project. Although she only had an hour-long experience at the facility, she found the cause inspirational and offered to host the event in Baltimore to help the organization expand its reach in the U.S.
“I was there for an hour and have not been able to stop thinking of the organization since then because I find it so inspiring,” she told attendees in her introduction to the event. “It has been a long time since I came across an organization that just feels like we should all wholeheartedly support the unbelievable work that it is doing. It is fascinating and phenomenal to see what these children get to experience by being exposed to this organization.”
Kramer and Flink visited Baltimore after a large event in Atlanta, another city where they continue to grow their base of support. In Atlanta, a group of second-generation donors to the organization raised over $110,000 at an event attended by more than 300 people. Flink said this is the first step to branching out and building new chapters, explaining that Atlanta is currently in the process of forming a committee in the city to continue efforts in the upcoming year.
“In many ways, people feel that we are addressing one of the most delicate issues of life, in particular Jewish life,” said Kramer. “I think one of the things that has made the Jewish people special over the generations is its ability to take disadvantages and turn them into the extraordinary, and this is exactly what we try to do.”