At 13, Dror was the kind of teenager who made his parents worry about what was going on in his mind. A middle child of three, he was withdrawn and introverted, unlikely to participate in school and unwilling to confide in his family. His hardworking parents were busy balancing jobs and family; they didn’t know how to get their son to come out of his shell or ensure that he didn’t veer off on the wrong path at such a critical juncture.
When Dror’s dad, Shmuel, learned about JDC’s Fathers and Sons Basketball Program, he was excited to engage with his son in a constructive activity. He felt the team experience could strengthen their family connection, which he learned was especially critical for boys who lack strong male role models and might otherwise turn to self-destructive or violent behavior. Dror, who initially didn’t even want to hang around his dad, reluctantly agreed to sign up together for their local team in Hatikva, TelAviv.
Part of JDC’s Ashalim partnership with the Government of Israel and UJA-Federation of New York to improve services for Israel’s children and youth at risk and their families, the Fathers and Sons initiative aims to strengthen relationships between adolescent boys and their fathers during the period when teens are defining their identity and transitioning towards adulthood.
Healthy parent-child relationships, which kids living in troubled neighborhoods and families disproportionately lack, are a proven factor in building resilience among teenagers. Research also shows that a teenage boy’s perceptions of his relationship with his father are directly related to depression, his performance in school, and his feelings of self-worth. For teenagers like Dror, who come from areas with few opportunities for positive recreational activities or facing difficult social or financial circumstances, this basketball league is an outlet that helps curb potentially risky behaviors like substance abuse.
These teams pick up more than just basketball techniques on the court. “Before we start playing I meet with the fathers and make sure they understand what the program is about,” says Dror and Shmuel’s coach. “We all practice together every two weeks and in between I meet with the dads to discuss issues relating to the team as well as their sons’ progress.”
Dror, now 15, successfully completed the program with his dad, and today he continues to play on the Bnei Yehuda boys' basketball team. He spends time with Shmuel in group practices and they often train together outside, too. He has opened up, begun to excel at school, and has his first girlfriend—all of which he attributes to the support and confidence that he has received from his dad and being part of the team.
“I am delighted to see my son’s confidence grow,” says Shmuel, now team manager. All 35 father and son pairs who have participated have improved relationships, begun to do better in school, and have stopped loitering and vandalizing in their neighborhoods.
All the boys are now proud to spend time with their dads, while the fathers have learned just how important their role is in their teens’ healthy development.
Ariana, the program coordinator, describes the progress she’s seen over the past two years: “The difference today with the fathers from the group is incredible. When they first joined, many of the fathers did not realize how absent they were from their kids’ lives. Today, all of them are ‘there’ for their sons. They are providing support, warmth, and personal attention. This program is truly a chance to do a mitzvah and save a child.”