“Drowners, head out into the water. Rescuers, get ready.”
Around a dozen children, all wearing bright pink shirts and fluorescent-green swimming caps, stand poised on the shoreline of Herzliya’s Zevulun Beach. A flotation device, also called a tube, is tied across their bodies.
When instructed, the kids charge into the water, running with their feet angled out to the side to easily jump over the waves, and rescue their “drowning” partners.
When they reach their partners, their first job is to calm them down, reassuring them that they’re safe and they’re going to be pulled to shore on the flotation device.
No, this isn’t a teen Israeli version of “Baywatch” and, no, the children aren’t really drowning. Instead, they are being closely supervised by adult facilitators as they undergo training in surf lifesaving – an iconic Australian tradition stretching back over a century.
“Everyone in Australia grows up knowing about surf lifesavers. When you go to the beach, you know they’re there and they’re able to save lives,” explains Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Paul Griffiths.
Surf Life Saving Australia is the country’s largest volunteer organization, with over 180,000 active volunteers trained in water safety and drowning prevention. They operate on Australia’s beaches, ready to rescue and resuscitate anyone who was pulled out to sea by the Pacific’s merciless currents. The group is so popular that a hit reality TV show, “Bondi Rescue,” has featured its lifeguards at the iconic Sydney beach for over 15 years.
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“The red and yellow bibs and shirts the lifesavers wear are symbolic,” Griffiths says. “It’s more than saving lives – it’s the values as well. The values around loving life, enjoying the sea, but also remaining vigilant and respecting it. I think it’s a really important message,” he adds.
Australia’s Surf Life Saving training has been adopted across the globe but only came to Israel in 2015, says Israel Life Saving Federation founder and president Paul Hakim. Hakim moved to Israel over 30 years ago from Sydney, where he was a lifeguard at Coogee Beach, one of the city’s legendary beaches.
“Israel is the startup nation advanced in technology, medicine and agriculture, and Australia is the world leader in Surf Life Saving-rescue skills and technology, and water safety education,” Hakim says, adding: “It only made sense to import one of Australia’s greatest products to Israel, which is so important and much-needed here as it prevents drownings and saves lives.”
Like in Australia, Israel’s sandy beaches are the place to be during the summer months, with all-day swimming, feasting on watermelon and noisy sports comprising a beloved seasonal pastime of locals and tourists alike.
Yet the balmy summer days are also regularly marred by tragedy, with dozens of drownings taking place in Israel every year. Since March there have been 22 deaths, including 10 children, while over 50 Israelis have drowned in the last 18 months.
“For years now, we’ve been in a desperate situation with lifeguards in Israel,” says Yesh Atid lawmaker Simon Davidson, a former chairman of the Israel Swimming Association. “Our aim is to increase the number of lifeguard towers on Israeli beaches, because the number is currently very low.”
Of Israel’s 350 kilometers (211 miles) of coastline, only 17 kilometers are currently manned by lifeguards. Davidson cites the government’s meager financial allocation to lifesaving as part of the problem: a state budget of 14 million shekels ($4.3 million) for the entire country.
“This means some spending falls on local councils to employ lifeguards and people the towers, which leads to the lifeguard shortage we’re facing,” Davidson says.
At his own popular local beach in Netanya, there’s only one lifeguard tower – yet it is responsible for a huge stretch of water. Desperate to escape the packed sea, “swimmers escape to the sides, to unsupervised and potentially dangerous areas,” Davidson says. “And this is when the drownings happen.”
Drownings also occur largely after lifeguard services end, according to information presented by the Knesset Research and Information Center. During the summer months in Tel Aviv, lifeguards finish duty at 6:45 P.M., around an hour before the sun sets.
Hakim believes the lack of swimming education from a young age is another reason for the number of drownings, especially in lower socioeconomic groups such as the ultra-Orthodox, Bedouin and some Arab Israelis.
“In Israel, there is no education program or national swimming program in the school system like in Australia, where they teach swimming from the age of 4,” Hakim notes.
Adopting the Aussie model
In recent weeks, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee has been examining the worrying statistics and looking at ways to tackle the problem.
Lawmakers commented on the lack of enforcement or penalties for swimming on unsupervised beaches; mulled lowering the minimum age for a lifeguard to 17, to widen the pool to pre-army Israelis looking for work; noted the rising demand for separate beaches for the ultra-Orthodox community; as well as the need to teach swimming to all parts of Israeli society.
The efforts were being led by committee chairman Saeed Alkharumi, the Bedouin lawmaker who suddenly passed away on August 25 after suffering a heart attack at age 49.
“The Interior Ministry plans to inaugurate another 23 patrolled beaches, but when will that happen? We do not want to wait another decade,” Alkharumi said at a committee meeting on August 9. He also revealed that the issue of drowning hadn’t been discussed in the Knesset since 2010.
Alkharumi had plans to meet officials from the finance and interior ministries to secure funding to staff more beaches with lifeguards.
The committee is also considering adopting educational aspects of the Australian Surf Life Saving training model, utilizing a tried-and-tested beach safety and swimming program.
However, Davidson said, proceedings have been delayed since the passing of Alkharumi.
“Alkharumi really wanted to push this forward, but now they’ll need to appoint a new chairperson,” the Yesh Atid lawmaker said.
Davidson said the issue will likely be tackled separately now. He says he plans to move the Surf Life Saving program’s educational aspects forward in the Knesset Education Committee as soon as he can, while the issue of opening new lifeguard-patrolled beaches will proceed in the Interior and Environment Committee.
Teens saving lives
Back in Herzliya, the Israel Life Saving Federation has been entertaining and education children during the summer months. It offers vacation courses for kids aged 7 and up (Nippers) and teens (Dolphins), where participants learn survival skills, surf safety, how to carry out a rescue, first aid and CPR, as well as hear lectures on the environment and conservation.
Hakim says four kids who did the course already carried out life-saving rescues. Gidi Goodvach, 14, was one of them, pulling a drowning child from the water at Poleg Beach, Netanya, last year.
“I was surfing near my house and the beach was really packed, so I moved away from where the lifeguards were. The [surf] conditions that day were really tough,” Goodvach recounts.
He swam up to a surfing-only area, where there were several children swimming. Goodvach urged them to get out, saying the conditions were too tough to be swimming in, and they agreed.
“Then I noticed there was another kid swimming further out who seemed to be struggling, so I swam up to him on my board to get a closer look. In the ‘Dolphins’ course, we were taught how to assess situations for any danger. When I got up to him, he was out of breath, saying ‘I need help! I need help!’
“I calmed him down, like they taught us to, and told him I know what I’m doing and can help him. He held onto me really hard, and I sent him in on my surfboard on the next big wave to shore. Back on the beach he went to his family and his mom, and they were very grateful.”