- Sigiri Koroma
Friday's YamTov Meet in Netanya
We caught up with YamTov, an NGO on a mission.

Surf therapy programs are popping up everywhere in the world and Israel is no exception. On Friday, we met up with YamTov, an NGO that is starting to make waves in the country. Here's their story:

It all started back in 2016 after the Rio Olympics, when Paralympic sailing was discarded for the following games.

"We were all working together in the Israeli Paralympic sailing team and when it was stopped, we decided that with our common knowledge we could start something to help others, bring them here and show them the power of the sea," Sharon Zisser, one of three co-founders said.

Doron Levit and Israel Altman jumped onboard and together created YamTov.

"I've seen the rise of adaptive surfing and I knew of a lot of rehabilitation ocean-based programs, kind of like ISTO (International Surf Therapy Organization) that's really inspiring and so we started our own here in Israel. We focus on trauma-related issues." Altman added.

Altman is a social worker, specialized in mental issues, Zisser manages the organization and Levit is working to create connections with similar initiatives both in Israel and abroad to extend their reach. All three are volunteers.

"We started in 2016 with our leadership group, and they didn't know at first why we called them that, they thought ‘we have problems, we can't be leaders'. But they've gone from just being participants to becoming instructors, and they've studied to get a diploma for that. And now they're responsible for other groups."

YamTov YamTov - Sigiri Koroma

YamTov now counts roughly 100 participants in four groups, located in Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Haïfa. They meet every single Friday, year-round, and engage in various activities at the beach, sand sculptures, surfing and sailing, break challah bread together and spend the day supporting each other.

The association is also supported in its mission by InterCure, the leading, largest, and fastest growing cannabis company outside of North America. InterCure improves quality of life for tens of thousands of patients with prescription based pharmaceutical grade medical cannabis. These include oncology patients, epilepsy patients, children with autism spectrum disorder, patients with PTSD and more.

"We believe that treating patients with disabilities or patients dealing with trauma through surfing helps create a sense of independence through an unmediated connection to nature," Alex Rabinovitch, CEO of InterCure stated. "We are proud to take part in today's event and strengthen this community."

YamTov works with a variety of people from different backgrounds, suffering from different conditions. The group we met with was mainly retired soldiers.

"I think that when we send soldiers to the war and to the army they are fine, and when they come back home, some of them are broken, so it's our responsibility as a community to help them. This is YamTov's mission." Zisser explained.

One of those ex-soldiers at the beach on Friday was John Liberty, a half-American, half-Israeli twenty-something year old, with a passion for surfing.

YamTov John casually turning a foamy. - WSL / Laurent Masurel

"After I got out of the army I felt stuff wasn't exactly right, like in my head, and little by little I came to the conclusion that I was suffering from PTSD." John admitted. "I've been surfing from a young age. I started being a surfing instructor and that's when I met Sharon and the people at YamTov. They were really welcoming to me and included me in the group. We meet every week, once or twice, and basically do therapy through the ocean, through the stuff we like. We share thoughts and emotions and make each other feel better, feel a little more loved and more ok. We usually go surfing or sailing, the ocean is just great, it reflects life a lot of the times. It can beat you up and take you down so hard, or it can lift you up so high."

Rain, hail or shine, the group is there for each other. When we rocked up to the beach at 7 a.m on Friday, the weather was grim, a British-like drizzle and cold wind was not particularly inviting. Sharon brought coffee, tea and cakes and soon enough everyone was chatting and smiling at the work ahead.

Their pre-surf routine consists of building a sand sculpture on the beach, it took about fifteen people an hour and a half of digging and sculpting but the result was cool, an original Pilpeled drawing of the sun that the artist shared with the group.

"I'm here in the back if there's an issue but mainly the power of this program comes from the group's self-management and self-help," Altman said. "People come to us with issues of depression and anxiety for example, and suddenly they're in a group with other people suffering from similar conditions, not only that but they openly talk about it, and share tips and coping mechanisms."

Shortly after, everyone took it to the lineup and the real fun began. Soft boards everywhere, people paddling for the same wave and jumping on each other's boards, lefts, rights, wipeouts, headstands, the energy and stoke was palpable. And that's where surfing really helps with the program.

"In the water everybody is surfing, you can't see who's who, it's very inclusive. On any given day our surfers are in the lineup blending with the crowd and being a part of a community that's greater than just our group," Altman added. "There's a lot of research that shows what surfing does for mental health, the flow, the cognition of time, the immersion in the water. Even the pre-surf is important, recognizing the conditions, and matching your ability to a goal, it's a real tool for people with anxiety issues in real life. Then in the lineup, you go from staring at the ocean to narrowing down on a very specific, performance-oriented task of catching and surfing a wave. That shift is great to train your brain to go from big picture to something specific."

YamTov WSL competitor Ainhoa Leiceaga joined the group for a few waves. - WSL / Laurent Masurel

"People who come to our groups have decided they want to turn their lives around and they choose to live," Zisser said. "They come with a happy attitude and it lifts up the whole group, there's a very positive vibe."

And it's working. YamTov has been effectively changing lives for six years now and continues to grow and reach more and more people.

"As for tracking progress we like to rely on three key concepts: study, work and family," Altman explained. "Our program helps people get back to studies or work, sometimes even volunteering positions within their communities, and get a healthy family life. We have seen marriages and kids come out of this and it's absolutely amazing. Building the identity of a surfer, a ‘normal' person is the ultimate goal. When someone can safely buy a board, a suit, organize a trip on their own to go surf somewhere and feel like they really belong to the community of surfers globally, it's a huge win for us."

So much so that the institution is taking notice.

"The work we've done for years now is being recognized by the government. The Veterans Affairs office now helps people get into our surf therapy programs with financial support and we're making a real social change."

YamTov also works closely with the adaptive surfing community in Israel, welcoming competitors to their sessions. Sagi Epstein, the national team's coach was there to share a few waves with two of his athletes, Nahman Yariv Balulu and Alexander Shoob.

YamTov Nahman in action - WSL / Laurent Masurel

Nachman was the silver medalist at the ISA World Para Surfing Championships at Pismo Beach last year. Alex is a partially blind teenager with a bright future. With the prospect of the first-ever Paralympic Games in L.A 2028, they're all hard at work to improve and compete at the highest level, flying the Israeli flag.

We spent a few hours chatting with everybody involved that morning and it's safe to say the work YamTov is doing has real value. It is carried by volunteers who have a passion for helping others, and a passion for surfing. The sport itself not only brings everyone together for a weekly paddle but helps tie the community, helps people with trauma relieve stress and anxiety and is a gateway to independence and a strong sense of identity.

You can find out more by checking the following links:
YamTov's website and Instagram
International Surf Therapy Organization
Follow Nachman on Instagram

- WSL / YamTov
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- WSL / YamTov
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