Written By: Elana Mutnick
Caleb Ouanounou has never had to worry about having a roof over his head. He’s never wondered when his next meal might be. But he knows that’s not true for everyone. For this reason, Ouanounou tries to help ensure others don’t have to worry about life’s necessities, such as finding a simple pair of shoes.
While constantly giving to those who are less fortunate, Ouanounou is finally doing something for himself this July. This Atlanta, Georgia native will represent Team USA in Israel among nearly 1,400 athletes in the 21st Maccabiah, securing a spot on the U-18 boys’ basketball team. It’s the latest journey for a 17 year old who is used to making an impact in different parts of the world.
Ouanounou said he is grateful for this opportunity to play against such talent, similar to the gratitude feels by the lives he has touched throughout his life. This past year, Ouanounou raised approximately $22,000 in tzedakah to assist those in need.
“Judaism is a part of my daily life,” said Ouanounou. “It’s just part of how I was raised.”
Ouanounou has gone to Jewish day school since he was three years old. He said his parents had always emphasized tzedakah and contributing aid being of utmost importance. Helping others was always a part of Ouanounou’s upbringing and has impacted how he continues to live his daily life.
The act of giving is by no means confined to just his community. Ouanounou started a club at his school called ShoeFlip$, where he and his friends resell sneakers.
“The original goal for this club was to buy all the kids at the Sanhedria Orphanage a new pair of shoes,” said Ouanounou. The Sanhedria Orphanage is a rehabilitation center in Jerusalem for boys aged 6-18 who have suffered from abuse and neglect during childhood. There are about 26 kids in the orphanage, and each pair of shoes costs approximately $100, according to Ouanounou. Ouanounou would set aside $10 from each pair of shoes sold, and he said his club’s goal was to raise roughly $2600.
“We were able to reach that goal and send all the money to the orphanage, and all the kids went on a little field trip and all the kids got a pair of new shoes,” said Ouanounou.
Ouanounou said he used the extra money he raised on Ukraine relief, and his strong beliefs regarding the necessities of tzedakah remain lasting.
Before Ouanounou decided to make this club at school, he already had a list of achievements that was nothing short of accomplished.
For Ouanounou’s Mitzvah Project, he spent two years prior to his bar mitzvah saving up $1800 to help a boy in the Sanhedria Orphanage celebrate his Bar Mitzvah with him and his family. Ouanounou’s mother explicitly told him that he wasn’t allowed to set up a GoFundMe page or a fundraiser, and he was to raise all the money on his own without help from his community, which he said is what others typically do.
“You have to raise it all by yourself,” Caleb said, referring to his mother’s words. Ouanounou put together his winnings from chess tournaments, birthday money, and his Hanukkah presents and was able to save up the $1800 and travel to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah.
“We brought like 40-50 people with us. We were all able to go to the orphanage… and we were able to throw a big party for them to celebrate that week with them as well,” Ouanounou said.
This incredible mitzvah was only the foundation of Ouanounou’s generosity. With the money he received from his bar mitzvah, Ouanounou took ten percent of that and bought two wheelchairs for the Israeli Sports Center for the Disabled.
Ouanounou continues his charitable acts through tzedakah, specifically for the Sunhedira Orphanage, where he usually provides tefillin for the boys and their Bar Mitzvahs. In addition, Ouanounou plans to buy shoes for children in homeless shelters with the money he is currently raising and has no intentions of stopping ShoeFlip$ or resigning from his presidency role.
“I love being able to combine my passion for shoes and drive when it comes to giving tzedakah,” said Ouanounou.
Ouanounou has unquestionably found his calling in life, and giving to those deprived of life essentials comes just as naturally to him as basketball.
Ouanounou currently attends The Felicia Penzell Weber Jewish Community High School in Sandy Springs, Georgia and is one of three other students selected to play at this year’s Maccabi Games.
Ouanounou flew in from Atlanta to Philadelphia for tryouts, knowing nobody there, ready to showcase his capabilities. Ouanounou emphasized his excitement going into tryouts but said he was also very overwhelmed by the undeniable technique of the others.
“I’ve never played against that much talent before,” Ouanounou said.
His abilities outweighed his concern, and Ouanounou will get the chance to strengthen his basketball career and Jewish identity during the three-week Maccabiah experience in July. Whether admiring The Western Wall in Jerusalem, climbing Masada, or scoring buckets with USA on his uniform, Ouanounou is ready for a trip of a lifetime.
Ouanounou said he is patiently waiting to walk in the opening ceremony alongside his teammates while representing his country simultaneously. Ouanounou said he is excited to “further explore [my] Jewish roots and culture in general.”
Even though this will be his fourth time traveling to the Holy Land, this experience will undoubtedly be incomparable.
“Being able to represent my country while also being around other Jewish kids and playing in Israel is just a crazy idea to me,” said Ouanounou.