Thornhill family uses basketball to raise funds for Bat Yam youth

Mitchell Rodney, front row, third from left, and sisters Hallie, front row centre, and Layla, third from right, with the Maccabi Bat Yam basketball team 

A month before his Sept. 26 bar mitzvah, Mitchell Rodney went to Bat Yam, Israel, to perform a pre-simchah mitzvah of his own. 

Travelling with his family, the 13-year-old Thornhill native met the players of Maccabi Bat Yam’s youth basketball team. Several players on the team are Ethiopian immigrants who live below the poverty line.

Many of those young players also rely on a $3,600 donation from Hoops Kids, the Toronto fundraiser that Mitchell and his family organize, to subsidize their gym fees.

“I wanted to know where the funds were going and I wanted to see, first-hand, the people and how [the money] has impacted their lives,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell’s older sister, Hallie, established Hoops Kids in 2011 as part of her bat mitzvah project. The fundraiser was a youth-oriented alternative to Hoops 4 Israel, a three-on-three basketball tournament for older teens and adults.

Since 2011, the Hoops Kids tournament has attracted more kids and donations. Mitchell took over as leader of Hoops Kids earlier this year. Funds raised help to buy bags, jerseys and other team necessities. Children in Bat Yam often practise for up to 12 hours each week, often in high temperatures and gyms without air conditioning. 

“They were very good basketball players,” Mitchell told The CJN. “They were ranked 10th in Israel for their age group.”

In 2007, Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb, became a partner with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, with a focus on helping at-risk citizens. Laura Kindler, a federation representative in Bat Yam, said fundraising efforts by Canadian Jews to help those hovering around the poverty line are important.

“They appreciate it,” Kindler said of the children from Bat Yam who receive these subsidies. “They know how the person who gave the gift lives so far away. How touched they are that somebody from Toronto… cares about them and thinks about them.”

Since the partnership began eight years ago, Kindler said the area’s Ethiopian immigrant population, whose members are aided by the Canadian fundraising efforts, has grown by nearly 300 families. Nevertheless, more than two-thirds of Ethiopian immigrants in Bat Yam live below the poverty line.

The Rodney family hopes they can keep contributing to the same sports-driven kids in Bat Yam, although future plans for Hoops Kids are still up for discussion. If it continues, corporate sponsorship could be a big help to boosting the fundraiser, said Jordan Rodney, Mitchell’s dad. 

Mitchell’s mom, Julie, said getting children involved in charity events ensures they’re not insular. “Jordan and I would say to [our kids], ‘Sometimes you have to do things for other people and put what you want aside, and carve out time to give back,” she said. “Hopefully, it keeps them a little less selfish and a little more giving.”

She urged kids to sign up for federation’s B’nai Tzedek bar and bat mitzvah program, which lets children set up an endowment fund and learn about philanthropy. 

“Looking at these [Bat Yam] kids, I realized how fortunate I am,” Mitchell said. “I’ve known my whole life that charity is wonderful. You have to give back. It’s nice to give back to society.”