Boaz Kramer has a strong handshake and, as I soon discover, a strong personality. As a CEO, that's perhaps that's a good thing, though the organization he's in charge of is hardly your run-of-the-mill corporation. Kramer is Director of the Israel Sports Centre for the Disabled (Spivak), established over 50 years ago, and offering over 20 different disciplines to both adults and children, including swimming, wheelchair tennis/table tennis/basketball, and track events. The centre works with both children and adults, regardless of whether their disability is from birth or acquired, through devastating accidents, debilitating illnesses or traumatic suicide bombings...
“How did it all begin? Well, it's an interesting story” Kramer tells me. “In England in the 1950's, a doctor named Ludwig Gutman had established a rehabilitation program for World War II victims at Stoke Mandeville hospital. One of the things he offered wounded soldiers was wheelchairs sports and, within no time, he saw what a positive impact it had on their morale. Back then, of course this was visionary thinking and when Israel's Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, heard about it, he was so impressed he invited Gutman to visit Israel to tour some of its rehabilitation centres. Gutman accepted and in 1960, with the help of the Ramat Gan's local mayor, who donated space for a basketball court and a warehouse to store equipment, the centre opened its doors.
Over the years, Spivak has gone from strength to strength, in particular helping children affected by the polio virus and cerebral palsy. Today, it offers everything from basic rehabilitation to competitive sports, runs a kindergarten by day, works with children in afternoon activity programs and, in the evenings, trains those hoping for a future in competitive athletics. And whilst the centre is located just on the borders of Tel Aviv, it helps those far beyond it.
“How do people hear of you?” I ask. “And how do they manage for transport, especially if they or their parents have no car?”“That's what's unique about us” Kramer tells me. “We operate a system that doesn't exist in the USA or Europe. From an early age, we make it our business to find these kids....to ensure they end up on our radar. Before they've reach the age of 6, we've already tracked them down by contacting municipalities, social workers, and schools. Before they reach out to us, we've already reaching out to them.”
“And what if they live far from Tel Aviv? Up near the Lebanon border? Or in a tiny town in the desert?
“From the Golan Heights to the Negev, we will help these kids. Outside of Tel Aviv, we run two satellite centers – one in the north of the country, the other in the south. And we charge a very modest monthly fee, which includes transport, lessons and equipment use. Of course, if someone doesn't have the financial resources, they won't be turned away. At each intake, we carry out evaluations by doctors, physiotherapists and social services and if necessary a discount or exemption will be given.”
Kramer's personal story is particularly inspiring. In a wheelchair since birth, as well as having partial paralysis in one hand, he began attending the center aged 5. The coaches there soon recognized his promise and, with his determination and their help, by 17 he was playing wheelchair table tennis competitively.
“For many parents, having a disabled child feels like failure.” he tells me. “And for a child, a disability can leave them feeling hopeless. Even within their own families, a disabled child might secretly be regarded as the 'weak link'. But sport is a very powerful tool and gives them the opportunity not just to succeed but to boost their morale. When they're competing in tournaments, excelling on a court or in the pool, and winning medals, they are succeeding. We aim to offer the very best facilities here and, trust me, if we see a child that has the makings of a talented athlete, we will do everything in our power to help.”
And Kramer isn't boasting either because, to date, Israeli athletes competing in the International Paralympics, have won an astonishing number of medals – over 300 in fact. Kramer himself competed in Beijing in 2008, in wheelchair tennis (both singles and doubles) and won a silver medal. Another of his colleagues, Baruch Hagai, surpassed himself both in wheelchair table tennis and basketball over the years, and once brought home a gold. Hagai, now retired, still works at the centre, coaching and keeping a quiet eye out, no doubt, for raw talent.
Spivak receives a small amount of money from the government, Kramer tells me, but relies primarily on private donation, many of which come from abroad. They employ 120 people including coaches, physiotherapists and psychotherapists and none of this is cheap, since a lot of expert knowledge and equipment is required. One wheelchair alone, I am told, costs several thousand dollars. Spivak also goes out of its way to hire disabled instructors, because it takes the view that they're good role models for the kids. Just as importantly, though, it also promotes its values beyond its walls.
“We regularly invite able-bodied high school kids here” he says. “They tour the place for half a day, talk to the coaches...some even sit in wheelchairs and try playing themselves. It's a real eye-opener for many of them and they leave with a whole new perspective and a greater appreciation for what we do.”
Outside, touring the grounds and admiring the newly-built gym, I hear enthusiastic shouts. Then as I turn the corner, I see them – the nine and ten year olds, racing around a basketball court in their chairs, whilst the coaches bark out orders. It's hard not to be moved by the sight.
“This isn't just about physical rehabilitation...it's also about emotional well-being,” Kramer explains. “Without this centre, a crucial part of these children’s' lives would be missing. Sport gives them joy and happiness. And that, in itself, makes me feel I'm in the right job.”