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Israeli basketball team visits Boca Raton — a relief from wartime struggles

A group of teenagers who traveled from Israel to South Florida were thankful for this week’s getaway from the hardships and tragedies of the war.

The teens enjoyed playing basketball against a team in Hollywood, caught a professional game, went shopping at Sawgrass Mills, scooping up crocs and SpongeBob SquarePants cellphone cases — and had a chance to catch their breath.

Guy Eitan, a 14-year-old who’s in the ninth grade, said it was a fantastic recharge. “We go back to normal Sunday,” he said. “We’re taking a break from the situation in Israel.”

The Israel-Hamas war “makes us adults a little bit,” he said.

Guy was among about two dozen teens, with their coaches, who are part of an Israeli youth basketball team that spent time in South Florida. Most of the team’s week was spent in Miami, and the teens arrived in Boca Raton on Friday afternoon to meet with their host families for the weekend before they return back to Israel.

Their trip was partially underwritten by the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. The idea of funding the trip was “one small way” to remind the kids they are not alone, the Jewish Federation said.

“They are not yesterday’s news,” said Marla Egers, executive vice president. “We have not moved on.”

Since the war broke out on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel, and families have scattered from among the border. That stopped the teens from being able to meet up and play since they were dispersed throughout the country.

Guy’s moshav neighbor and teammate is Shahar Aharon, a 12-year-old in the seventh grade. They live one kilometer from the Gaza border.

“The kids were evicted from their homes” since October, he said. The chance to visit South Florida gave them a brief sense of having “no pressure.”

“It’s like a chofesh,” said Elad Elmaliah, 14, a 9th grader, describing in Hebrew a feeling of freedom, or getting a break. His family was forced farther south to the city of Eilat while his father, who works in computer technology, was called to serve in the Army reserves.

In South Florida, he said, is “more chill.”

Coach Sagi Katav said his team is made up of 26 boys. They’re in grades seven through nine — middle-school level in Israel.

They are a team made up of eight kibbutzim and moshavim — different structures of neighborhood collectives — all in the southern part of the country surrounding Ashkelon.

They’ve been unable to be a team since the attacks displaced about half the families, including Katav, who moved north. They were fleeing rockets being launched by Hamas but also the proximity to Gaza turned the areas into military staging areas and Israeli civilians would be in the way.

And there’s been tragedy: One team member lives on a moshav that was ambushed on Oct. 7, and the child’s father and uncle were shot to death.

The Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County has been raising money for the emergency campaign, which includes relocating Israelis whose homes have been damaged by Hamas rockets or they had to be proactively evacuated. They’ve needed clothes and food, among other essentials. The fundraiser also included providing emotional-trauma support.

“The local Jewish community feels the need to be there and be there generously,” said Dana Vizner, the Federation’s chief planning officer. “It’s important these kids know there is a global Jewish community who support them.”

About 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Oct. 7 attacks after fighters breeched a security border fence, raping, mutilating, burning families alive, and kidnapping more into Gaza, including elderly and children. Another 223 soldiers have died during the subsequent fighting.

Hamas claims the death toll in Gaza reached 27,000 people Friday but the organization does not differentiate between fighters and civilians, or those killed by their own misfired rockets.

Israel argues the war against Hamas will continue until both Hamas and its underground tunnel network is destroyed, and more than 100 remaining Jewish hostages are freed.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on X, formerly Twitter, @LisaHuriash