Miryam fled school and her chaotic Israeli home at age 14, drifting to a different place every night. She didn’t trust adults, or herself, and began abusing drugs and alcohol.

Sinking slowly in a sea of despair, Miryam was thrown a lifeline by a nonprofit organization, HaGal Sheli (“My Wave”).

HaGal Sheli uses surfing to empower at-risk youth to get off the streets and back to school with a heightened sense of dignity, self-worth and accomplishment.

“HaGal Sheli was the first time Miryam started something and managed to finish it,” says Yaron Waksman.

Waksman cofounded the organization in April 2012 with his best friend, Omer Tulchinsky.

With corporate, government, foundation and individual funding, they’ve since “graduated” 3,000 teens like Miryam, from secular and religious Jewish, Muslim and Christian homes.

HaGal Sheli cofounders Omer Tulchinsky and Yaron Waksman. Photo: courtesy

Waksman and Tulchinsky met in an educational entrepreneurship class at Seminar Hakibbutzim College. Each went on to earn a master’s degree in the education field.

They had remarkably similar backgrounds. Both gained leadership skills at a young age in Israeli youth movements. Both volunteered with underprivileged kids before becoming commanders in their respective military units.

And both Waksman and Tulchinsky love the waves. They are certified surfing instructors and ocean lifeguards.

“We never meant to establish a nonprofit,” Waksman tells ISRAEL21c. “We started surfing together and decided to use it as an educational tool for kids who have dropped out or have criminal records.”

They got a list of 10 high-school dropouts from one of their former lecturers, a principal in South Tel Aviv. Each was invited to learn how to surf for free at a club on the Jaffa shore that agreed to lend its equipment.

Surfing leads to life skills at HaGal Sheli. Photo: courtesy

Why surfing?

“Youth at risk feel they are not capable of succeeding at anything,” explains Waksman.“Surfing is fun, cool and challenging. It puts these kids in a new atmosphere where they haven’t failed and can create an authentic feeling of success.”

Regardless of their prior history and difficult family and financial situations, the teens are told they can succeed at surfing – and at life – if they put in time and effort.

“For some it will take 100 times, for others 1,000,” says Waksman. “The whole method is about duplicating this experience of success into everyday life challenges.”

HaGal Sheli participants learning surfing techniques on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa beach. Photo: courtesy

The first group of 10 proved the experiment worked.

“We had an amazing experience with those 10 kids. We had thought to do five sessions and it turned into a full year,” recalls Waksman.

When summer came, the surf club couldn’t host them anymore. Determined to continue, Waksman and Tulchinsky quit their jobs, took out personal loans and founded HaGal Sheli.

Tulchinsky’s parents provided storage space for the surfing equipment that they bought and towed to the beach every week in a trailer until finding their first permanent location in 2014, in Bat Yam.

Facing the waves together at HaGal Sheli. Photo: courtesy

Today, HaGal Sheli has 30 paid staffers and 220 volunteers working with 1,000 teenagers at risk each year at three coastal centers in Bat Yam, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Kfar Galim. (Operations were suspended during the corona crisis and are now resuming.)

Some of the kids never saw the sea before and others have to learn how to swim before starting the program.

Israel’s temperate weather allows for surfing all year long. Israel enjoys one of the world’s best frequencies of waves, and although the Mediterranean waves are small, “that’s great for beginners,” Waksman points out.

Learning to surf through HaGal Sheli. Photo: courtesy

Feeling capable

Over seven years, the partners have drawn on research in psychology, education and resilience to refine their three-part approach of “head-body-head.”

This means learning a surfing skill through discussion, then through practice in the water and lastly through discussion of applying the lesson in everyday life.

For example, participants learn how ocean currents can throw surfers off course or can be used to the surfer’s benefit. They practice mastering currents on their surfboards. Then they discuss strategies to navigate dangerous “currents” in the sea of life.

Surveys of HaGal Sheli graduates show that 84 percent of participants report improvement in self-esteem; 92% report an increase in persistence ability, and 95% successfully graduate from high school and serve in military or national service programs.

HaGal Sheli instructors helping a participant learn to master the waves. Photo: courtesy

“Adam,” 18, joined HaGal Sheli’s Young Mentor program in Bat Yam after successfully completing the course. Now he’s beginning military service.

“As a child, I didn’t have an ordinary life,” says Adam.

“At the age of six, I moved in with my grandmother. I became sort of a ‘parent’ to her – I took care of her while all the other kids in my class played soccer, went shopping or did their homework. I was also missing a father figure, someone to cheer me on, give me a pat on the back when needed,” he relates.

“I feel that HaGal Sheli, and my group in particular, made me a person who believes he can do everything. I’ve learned that life doesn’t become any easier, but I can become better.”

As a Young Mentor, he has tried to help his disciples “realize what I have realized in HaGal Sheli– that they are capable.”

HaGal Sheli kids learn that they are capable. Photo: courtesy

A progressive wave of programs

HaGal Sheli now has five parts.

The basic program, Lighthouse, accepts 14 participants per cohort in each of the three locations. They get weekly three-hour sessions for six months. The main requirement is agreeing to continue or return to the formal education system.

A representative from each participant’s school or alternative institution is present during all sessions. Ninety-one percent of these school reps report that HaGal Sheli leads to an improvement for participants in the school setting.

Lighthouse graduates can continue getting weekly free surfing sessions to improve their skills under close mentoring and guidance,as part of the organization’s “A Place for Life” program.

The Circles program scales up Lighthouse graduates’ skills in the water and in one of three related tracks: photography and photo editing, operating and repairing surfboards, or entrepreneurship and high-tech.

In the Young Mentors Program, select graduates of the Circles program go from being trainees to certified instructors at HaGal Sheli.There’s also a “Junior Team” of graduates volunteering as assistant instructors.

In addition, HaGal Sheli started Al HaGal (On the Wave), a social business in which graduates are employed running events on the beach, executive workshops and team-building activities that include surfing.

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