Ziv Neurim maritime program 370.
(photo credit: Ziv Neurim)
When he made aliya from Morocco in the 1960s, Benny Vaknin was five years old
and could only speak French.
“It was hard at school,” he recalled in an
interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“Not just because of the
language, but there was discrimination, which was very hard to deal
After finishing elementary school with difficulty, Vaknin didn’t
follow his classmates to high school. Instead, he enrolled in a naval officers’
boarding school, where he learned to work at sea.
“I was there for four
years, and it flipped a switch in my head,” he said. “I went through changes in
terms of learning responsibility, maturity and autonomy.”
Vaknin is now
CEO of Ziv Neurim, an NGO that uses marine activities to help at-risk youth deal
with difficulties in their personal lives and prevent them from dropping out of
the education system.
“We use marine tools to help them advance and
understand how to deal with difficulties in life,” he said, “It can be things at
school or learning how to work with others, gaining self-confidence and how to
deal with hardships in general.”
His own experience at the naval boarding
school helped him shape his professional path: After a sailors’ course in the
IDF, he served in the Israel Navy for 30 years and became a lieutenant-colonel.
Following the army, he briefly went into the business world, which he felt
“wasn’t for [him],” before coming across Ziv Neurim.
The NGO, which has
been operating in Israel for 13 years, works throughout the country and assists
some 500 teenagers each year.
The program participants are divided into
groups of 15.
Each group is assigned a “big brother” who accompanies them
all year at sea and is in touch with their families and educators at school
Once or twice a week, the teenagers are picked up after school
and go to one of the NGO’s local marine centers for two hours of water
activities, including sailing, paddling and surfing.
“At sea, we create
all the dilemmas that these kids encounter in life,” explained Vaknin. “At the
end of each lesson, they sit together and talk about the difficulties they had
at sea and how they apply to daily life.”
By way of example, he said, “if
we went in the water with the wrong tools, the boat won’t sail. So we analyze
what it means in life: If I don’t bring my supplies to school, it is the same
He also pointed out that “the advantage at sea is that you get
immediate feedback on what you do. It’s not retrospective
The marine activities help the teenagers not only
academically, but socially as well.
“If they used to be rivals at school,
here they understand that if they don’t help each other, the boat won’t sail,
and they learn that to achieve a common goal, they have to work as a team,” he
said. “It unifies them.”
Once in a while, representatives of Ziv Neurim
go to the teenagers’ schools and update educators about the changes the student
According to the organization, 80 percent of the
youngsters participating in the program remain in school instead of dropping
out, 85% pass the bagrut (matriculation) exam, and 75% enlist in the
“I have hundreds of letters from kids telling personal stories of
how it changed their lives,” Vaknin told the Post
“What I received, I am
giving back to the kids now, and it brings me back to my past.”
organization will be holding its annual national boat competition in Ashdod next
week, involving teenagers from all branches of Ziv Neurim nationwide.