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From Class Clown to Saving the Lives of At-Risk Teens

by cpt. A.Y. Katsof
June 10, 2019

Israel’s miraculous Six Day War victory inspired over a quarter of a million Jews to move to Israel. Within the new state, growth of the nation and resettlement of the ancient homeland was of top concern.  In 1981, the idealistic Kashi family left their home in Jerusalem to help found the community of Psagot in the Binyamin Region, now home to nearly 2000 people.  Along with a few other like-minded families settling the land, they saw themselves as the blessed children of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, fulfilling a divine destiny.

Young Boaz Kashi felt united with his family’s vision but wasn’t feeling blessed.  At 9 years old, no matter how hard he tried, his only success in his new elementary school was as class clown and as a competent “good sport”.  Try as he might, he couldn’t concentrate in class or retain information. But when it came to sports class, he shined.

The sports teacher appreciated his involvement so much he gave Boaz a key to the equipment room. Kids in the upper grades joined in on a bike race Boaz initiated.  This bike race was a sensational success, boosting the confidence Boaz lacked in both religious and secular classes. The next day, Boaz was shocked when told by a delegation from his school, led by none other than the principal, to go home and not return.

Boaz coaching kids at one of his basketball games.

“They wanted to believe I was unteachable and a negative influence on other students.  They had to kick me out of the school, because they were threatened by my social standing.  Kids liked me. I wasn’t a bully; I just couldn’t learn. I was kicked out of one school after another.  If you ask me who’s fault it was, I’ll put full blame on myself, but it was also a lost opportunity for the schools.”

Looking back at his childhood, he felt the love and support of his family, G-d and his girlfriend, Limor.  But the one thing that truly thrust him forward as a success was basketball. It wasn’t about winning. It was the teamwork, the skill development and the strategizing that all came together for Boaz.  It was his calling.

Educate a youth according to his way, so that even when he ages, he will not deviate from it” is priceless advice received from the wisest of men, King Solomon (Proverbs 22:6).

After failing at his best attempt to pass one final high school exam, Boaz hit a low point in his life.  He kept wearing a kippah (also known as a yarmulke, which means “God-fearing”), kept the Shabbat and ate only kosher food, but in all other areas, Boaz fell away from ideal Jewish observance.

Yeridah L’Tsorech Aliyah” is a concept that, in life, spiraling down to a low point can be a necessary part of God’s plan to help reach new heights. Boaz chose to learn Bible Studies in a post high school Yeshiva, simply for the sake of learning holy texts without any grades or certification.  In this way, he hoped to find new inspiration. However, even in this setting, and with all his best intentions, it was suggested that Boaz look elsewhere to find his path.

Boaz and his family at his daughter’s wedding.

Boaz joined the Israel Defense Force.  He discovered the skills used to triumph in sports, such as being a team player, being physically fit and having good coordination, were useful in being a good soldier. Boaz was chosen to fight in the elite Golani Brigade.  Tragically, he was wounded in Lebanon during his service.

After his army service, Boaz and Limor were married, establishing their home in their childhood community of Psagot.  Limor encouraged Boaz to study for the Israeli Bagrut matriculation tests that are a prerequisite to any higher education opportunities.

She is truly my Woman of Valor,” Boaz praises.  “She stuck by my side all through the difficulties I had in high school, as well as when I was recovering from my war wounds.  She studied with me for hour upon hour until I finally passed all my tests.”

He completed all the Bagrut tests within one year and then went on to receive a degree in Social Work.

Boaz with a group of kids and mentors in the heart of Israel.

Word of Boaz’ victory in the world of academics spread fast among others in his situation: kids who had been labeled “dropouts” or “unteachable”.  A cousin who had also been kicked out of a high school asked Boaz to mentor him as a private tutor. Another friend joined the daily tutorials, then another.  Suddenly, Boaz was leading seven youths down the path of success. His grass-roots program quickly turned into a school, with the help of other concerned adults. He founded this school, Tzur Yisrael and was the principal there for 13 years.

Meanwhile, Boaz has remained connected to his passion for basketball, but not as a professional player. Rather, Boaz sees the complexities of the sport as the ideal setting for a mentor-student relationship.

“When a boy hears, ‘Good pass!’ he feels good about himself and the team members appreciate him, giving him social status and connecting him to his group.  I am blown away when parents tell me how basketball is the highlight of their child’s otherwise dark existence. Kids who shine in my programs then begin to succeed in school.  It’s happened not once, but over and over again. When I am coaching, I’m building the player, not going for the win. That’s the secret.”

Boaz at the far left coaching one of the basketball teams in the heart of Israel.

After twenty years of experience, Boaz is ready to roll out a pilot program, the Derech Chaim Project, sharing his coaching method with others like himself who turned their lives around through basketball and want to coach the next generation of those called “dropouts”, who Boaz calls “thrown-outs”.

“These kids are diamonds in the rough.  They are great. When they internalize that knowledge, they apply their skills to all aspects of their lives.  Then there is no stopping them!”

Boaz wants to personally thank Leon, Yaakov and Neama Berg from the Psagot Winery for their amazing support in helping establish the Derech Chaim Project. With this project, Boaz can open more programs like his all around Israel. This program also allows him to go the extra mile for certain children who need the extra attention. He sees that there are certain children who can not afford the basketball programs or who need extra mentoring time and this program will give these children what they desperately need to succeed.

Boaz has received so many messages from parents who are profoundly appreciative of the life-altering work that he has done for their children and their families.

Here are just a few of the messages he receives from mothers of children in his basketball programs:

“We see such a huge improvement in our child after you started coaching him. He is smiling again and believes in himself.”

“Your basketball team is so unique, not only because you have a special relationship with all the kids, but because you actually have turned them into a family.”

“Thank you for being such a wonderful role model!”

Kids from Boaz’ programs meeting professional basketball players in Jerusalem.

Together with The Heart of Israel, Boaz was even able to bring some special children from the Benjamin region to meet professional American basketball players. They had a wonderful evening being inspired and getting autographs. We hope to help Boaz and his programs continue to empower more and more children to succeed in the heart of Israel.