From 76ers to 48ers: Sports nonprofit works to level playing field in Israel

NGO that brands itself the ‘home of sports for social change’ looks to raise money with an unusual fundraising technique — auctioning off Philadelphia memorabilia over Facebook

Beersheba teenagers, participants in the 48ers program, work on computers during one of the program's technological education activities in an undated photograph. (Matan Amira/The Equalizer)
Beersheba teenagers, participants in the 48ers program, work on computers during one of the program's technological education activities in an undated photograph. (Matan Amira/The Equalizer)

Uniforms worn by the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team will be auctioned off this month, as part of an online fundraiser to support youth athletic programs in disadvantaged Israeli towns.

This auction is the result of an unlikely connection between the owner of the 76ers, Jewish billionaire Josh Harris, and an Israeli charity known as The Equalizer in English, or Sha’ar Shivion (literally, the tying goal) in Hebrew, which was founded in 2009 by Liran Gerassi.

The organization works to reduce socioeconomic inequality in Israeli society through youth sports programs that blend academics with physical activity in disadvantaged areas. It currently operates 410 teams in cities across the country.

One of its more recent programs, created in 2016, is known as the 48ers and blends basketball and STEM education. The Equalizer created the program in collaboration with Harris, who had called Gerassi to ask for his help in running basketball teams for underprivileged youth in Israel. The program began modestly in a single Jerusalem neighborhood from a donation that was made in honor of Harris’s son Stuart’s bar mitzvah over a decade ago.

The 48ers began in the working-class neighborhood of Talpiot with a focus on integrating Ethiopian-Israeli youth, but now boasts 25 teams across Israel. The name of the program is, of course, a nod to Harris’s 76ers, which were named for the year when the US was founded (1776).

“We believe deeply in the power of sports in transforming lives, and it is rewarding and humbling to see the positive impact that the 48ers has had on youth in Israel, particularly those in underserved communities. From Philadelphia to Israel, we’re excited to be part of this campaign that provides children with resources and support to help them thrive,” Harris told The Times of Israel.

This month, the organization will be auctioning off valuable sports items on Facebook, from the Philadelphia 76ers and various Israeli teams, to meet their goal of NIS 100,000 ($28,000). That money will fund the formation of additional soccer and basketball teams in Israel’s underserved communities, sometimes referred to collectively as the “periphery.” It is seeking to recruit 200 more children into its programs with the money raised.

Jerusalem beginnings

Gerassi created the organization while he was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During his studies, he volunteered at a community center in Talpiot and decided to put together a soccer team for the neighborhood’s youth.

“I saw them [children in the neighborhood] one day sitting outside on benches and on the sidewalk, drinking vodka and smoking things, and I gathered them,” Gerassi said. “I told them, ‘Let’s have a soccer team,’ and I managed to get them a sponsor for the jerseys and the cleats, goals and everything.”

Three times a week, Gerassi and his friend held soccer practices at the Talpiot community center, helping the students with their homework along the way. Eventually, the students’ teachers noticed that they were performing better on assignments, and reached out to Gerassi, asking that his program be implemented into the school’s curriculum. It wasn’t long before other schools in the area began to follow suit.

Today, the program involves its participants in afterschool activities four times a week — twice a week is soccer practice, while the other two times is what the organization calls “study center,” time for students to get help from tutors with their schoolwork.

A girl kicks a soccer ball during a match in Lod between two teams from The Equalizer’s Boatot program, which aims to build girls’ confidence and empower them in ordinarily male-dominated sports, in an undated photograph. (Aviv Havron/The Equalizer)

In addition to its main, eponymous program, The Equalizer organization manages a number of other programs. Its newest, Safe Swimmers, is geared toward combating the issue of drowning among Arab Israelis by teaching Arab children to swim. The organization also runs soccer teams for girls, to promote female empowerment in male-dominated sports, and for youth with special needs.

Once a month, The Equalizer’s soccer and basketball teams compete in regional tournaments that focus on building respect between youths of different backgrounds, religions and cultures. The most important prize awarded in the tournament is the “fair play cup,” which is given to the team that displayed the most goodwill toward other teams, whether that be shaking hands with the winning team, cheering from the bench or helping someone get up after they fall down.

In wake of the ethnic clashes during May 2021 in mixed cities such as Lod, Haifa and Acre, The Equalizer began to focus more of its energy on organizing initiatives in these communities to help ease tensions between Jewish and Arab residents, but also to help improve the socioeconomic standing of the cities.

“Every time something like this happens, it’s lowering the socioeconomic status of the city. People who can afford to escape do it, and it leaves behind the people who can’t afford to escape these kinds of cities. But we still want them to have a good life,” Gerassi said.

Aside from the 76ers uniforms, The Equalizer is auctioning off a number of uniforms of Israeli athletes, including those of Shon Weissman of the Spanish soccer club Real Valladolid, and the now-retired Omri Casspi of the basketball powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The organization began auctioning off items on July 1, and will continue until the end of August. On weekdays, two auctions are held a day, one in the morning, one in the evening. Outside of the 48 hour auction held over Shabbat, each bidding period lasts 24 hours.

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