Instructed by his parents to stay inside their safe room to protect his little sister during the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel, a 17-year-old boy spent hours agonizing over his decision to follow their directive, knowing that their bodies were lying outside and that those responsible for their deaths were continuing their rampage.   

Now imagine this child carrying the burden of blame and guilt for not going after the terrorists who murdered his mother and father.   

Yaron Waksman, founder and CEO of HaGal Sheli, has been meeting with at-risk youth for the past decade, with over 10,500 alumni and more than 350 educators, therapists, and marine professionals helping them stay in school and find community. HaGal Sheli, which means “my wave” in Hebrew, uses its multi-year, multi-step surfing program as an empowering educational tool to teach participants how to overcome life’s challenges through determination and persistence. 

But the work of the organization has shifted, drawing on the field of somatic therapy. HaGal Sheli recently expanded its scope to address the unprecedented trauma that has touched nearly everyone in Israel since the start of the war, including the boy who lost his parents and considered himself a coward.   

For the last two years, HaGal Sheli operated a trauma therapy program for Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in collaboration with the Israel Ministry of Defense Rehabilitation Department. Following the Oct. 7 attacks, HaGal Sheli grew this partnership and adapted the existing program beyond the veteran population to cater to a wider range of individuals, including evacuees from the Gaza Envelope and northern communities, released hostages, survivors of the Nova music festival, and both active duty and reserve IDF soldiers. Recognizing the critical importance of early intervention, the program includes sessions led by educators, professional psychologists, and social workers, and is designed to address the immediate needs of those impacted and mitigate the onset of PTSD, while focusing on preventing potential long-term psychological consequences.  

Preventing PTSD from taking hold

“From the very first week of the war, we understood that we had a significant tool that could help people cope with the most acute traumas,” Waksman says. “We’ve been operating with the most affected communities to prevent trauma from becoming post-trauma.”  

Surfing allows participants to focus on the present, regain control, release energy, build friendships and community, experience success, and immerse themselves in nature therapy.   

“You don’t control the ocean,” Waksman says. “It can be dead flat. It can be big. It can be scary. But you do get the opportunity to choose to go out there and ride your wave and try hard to persist.”  

In December 2023, CJP granted HaGal Sheli $300,000 from its Israel Emergency Fund to continue its work supporting those affected by the war. Today, over 1,000 trauma survivors participate in the trauma intervention program, “Tools from the Waves.”

“We’re so overwhelmed by your generosity. We don’t take it for granted,” says Waksman. “Your support allowed us to open so many more groups. We called it a late Hanukkah miracle.”

And the progress they see through the eyes of those they are helping is nothing short of miraculous. Recounting the story of the boy who lost his parents, Waksman says that, initially, it was impossible for the boy to see himself as anything other than helpless, when he very likely saved his little sister’s life (and his own) by staying with her in the safe room. Over time, through surfing and meeting the challenges of the waves, Waksman saw him build resilience and confidence. After a successful experience in the water, he told Waksman, “I was truly happy. I was really happy with myself, not criticizing myself, not thinking I’m a loser or that I’m a coward.” 

“The loop of thoughts can’t stand the ocean,” Waksman says. “The ocean doesn’t care. When a wave hits you—bam, you’re living in the moment. Then you get back up and you’re hit again, but you gain control and confidence. You pop up on your board and you want to take another one, and now you’ve just visualized the future in a small way. And the waves keep coming, just like life.” 

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