Can a soldier with one leg ride a surfboard?

Valley residents Esther and Don Schon recently returned from visits to France and Israel as part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. The Schons are the Major Gifts Chairs in the 2016 Campaign Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. This guest blog post was written by the Schons on July 17.

surfers

Teen surfing instructors head from a Tel Aviv beach to their Mediterranean “classroom.” Photo courtesy of the Schons

Can a soldier with one leg ride a surfboard? I would have said no until yesterday (July 16). But then I went to the beach in Tel Aviv.

A third of Israeli Jews live below the poverty line. Where there are poor adults there are impoverished children, and Israel is no exception. When these impoverished children become teenagers, they are at high risk for succumbing to drug addiction, prostitution, crime and prison. Or, at least until two ex-soldiers, one with a law degree, decided that because they liked surfing and needed something meaningful to do they would start a program to teach disadvantaged teens how to surf. Scrounging donations from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which receives funding from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), equipment manufacturers, school budgets and philanthropists, they put together a program for at-risk teens from high schools of last resort.

They selected students who said they wanted to learn to surf. They started by teaching the teens to balance on a board, but as their students learned that skill, they talked about balance in life. As the students graduated to waves, they also talked about the waves and ups and downs they face in life. The teens were introduced to tasks that required group participation both for balance and to achieve a goal and then they talked about the effect that their actions had on others and the meaning and effectiveness of teamwork.

Before going out into the ocean, the students had to study a manual and demonstrate learning by taking a test. And now since they could study for and pass a test on the beach, why not in school? Pride on the board led to pride in the group and, ultimately, to individual and group success.

The vast majority of the 750 teens who have gone through the program have finished high school rather than finish with drugs.

But the two ex-soldiers were worried. The initial program lasted was less than a year. To really have an ongoing effect on the lives of the students, the soldiers needed to extend the program. But to go further they needed funds. Since they now had equipment and space, they started a for-profit summer camp and put together a team development program to market to companies in Israel. To do this, they needed instructors and counselors. So after obtaining a start-up development grant from JFNA through JAFI the former soldiers trained the students who had completed the initial program to be counselors and instructors.

Now, the ex-soldiers had an income stream to pay for and extend the program. A Knesset member, hearing about the program, reasoned that if we can give new skills and confidence to at-risk teens, why not severely injured and traumatized soldiers? We watched a film crew documenting an IDF pilot on crutches with mangled legs and a soldier with an above-the-knee amputation get on surf boards in the sea with these teen instructors.

So I the way we see it, a Jew in Phoenix gives a donation to the federation and money ends up in the hands of two enterprising young Israelis, who help underprivileged teens have a productive life. Is that not what our ethics tell us is right?

 

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