Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Swimmer 299

By BARBARA SOFER

June 19, 2015

I’m No. 299, the swimming journalist from The Jerusalem Post.

The organizers who have invited me to cover the women’s swim of the Kinneret expect me to write, not swim. They offer me a place in the boat; I tell them I get seasick.

II assure them that when dawn breaks on Friday, I’ll be in the water with the others.

The number is written in thick magic marker on my tomato-red bathing cap and on my forearm. Several women refuse to take photos – even selfies – with numbers on their arms, but I appreciate that 299 is going into the water and someone needs to check that 299 comes out.

We are issued long navy-blue T-shirts/dresses that go down to our calves. Indeed most of my fellow swimmers, women and girls age 10 to 80, are of the modest persuasion. Many are matriarchs of large Torah-observant families; at the other end are preteens and bat-mitzva girls and seminary students.

Announcements are made in Hebrew, but the lingua franca among the swimmers is English; English-speaking veteran immigrants seem to be the majority. Decades ago, they learned to swim in summer camps across the sea, following the rules of strict waterfront instructors who imparted useful skills like floating and treading choppy waters. There are also a handful of women who have learned to swim only in recent years, and are bold enough to do so in the open waters.

The all-women’s swim-a-thon is called Swim4Sadna, not a catchy title but one that reflects its fund-raising goal to support Sadnat Shiluv B’Emunah, a school in Gush Etzion for children with a wide variety of challenges.

Vivienne Glaser, who initiated the swim, was so impressed by the school that she relocated her family from Ma’alot to Alon Shvut so that her sixth and youngest child could attend Sadnat Shiluv.

Her desire to help develop the school dovetailed with another of Glaser’s personal goals. In her native London she was a champion swimmer, competing on the national team at the Maccabiah Games. After moving to Israel, she’d always wanted to take part in the annual Israeli Cross-Kinneret Swim, the largest amateur sporting event in the country – always scheduled on Shabbat.

Glaser discovered that other observant friends were also frustrated by this timing. So, seven years ago she sought out the organizers of the Shabbat swim and said she wanted to organize her own swim-a-thon for women – only on a Friday.

Recounts Glaser,“For months, they waved me away and refused to take my calls. At last, the person in charge gave me a to-do list that included getting 24 permits. He expected to never hear from me again.”

In her professional life, Glaser is a business consultant, and two weeks later, she was back with all the forms signed. Six years ago the first all-women’s swim, coupled with a fund-raiser for Sadnat Shiluv, was launched.

KIBBUTZ HAON Holiday Village, on the east side of the Kinneret, serves as base camp. The event kicks off with an outdoor chicken dinner for participants and a film is shown about Sadnat Shiluv, focusing on a cluster of caravans that serve as apartments for the challenged youngsters who are now young adults.

A group of Sadnat Shiluv students serenades us with a song or two. Several of the challenged young women will swim, including one blind student.

Each of my 298 fellow swimmers has raised at least NIS 2,500 to qualify to swim, and paid a registration fee as well. The money raised this year is earmarked for an educational kitchen where the young residents and their counselors will, among other activities, turn the milk of their sheep herd into cheese and bake sale-able pastries.

At dinner, I’m seated with the clan of Dutch-born Hannah Loecher, 70, a mother of eight and one of the swim-a-thon celebs. Three of her five daughters and four granddaughters will be gliding along with her.

Loecher has been taking part in the event for six years, and will swim the 3.5-kilometer option. It’s not much of a challenge for her; like Glaser, she’s a professional swimmer.

She once swam 11 kilometers in the Kinneret. “Of course, that was quite a few years ago,” she admits.

The vivacious Loechers ooze esprit de corps. Reveals daughter Shoshana Berman of Kfar Adumim, “Our brother Daniel feels so left out that he threatened to dress up as a girl and come. We love this.

After meeting the swimming Loechers, I’m wondering if perhaps I should have trained seriously for this event. I often daydream or talk with a friend while swimming. What if I get tired? What if I get a leg cramp? I opt for the beginners’ swim, a kilometer-and-a-half, figuring this is the safe choice for a first-timer.

THE EXCEPTIONAL wind system of Lake Kinneret has been the subject of interest to scientists for more than half a century. In summer a lake breeze develops, blowing towards the shore, ceasing when westerly winds arrive from the Mediterranean. At night, a wind flow develops from the land towards the lake, combining with the winds that blow along the slopes surrounding our lake.

More than one woman expresses worry about the wind; but on the June morning of our swim, the waters are calm and warm.

The swim-a-thon isn’t a race; it’s supposed to echo the Sadnat Shiluv credo of personal empowerment, inclusion for all and giving to society. There are rafts along the way where the faster swimmers have to wait for slower swimmers to catch up. Those who suspect they will be slow are advised to get into the water early.

I have no idea if I’ll be a leader or a lagger. On the way in, I see Vivenne Glaser’s Mom, who is 80 and swimming for the sixth time. Any tips for a first timer? “I want to go home,” she replies.

We’ve been warned that getting into the water is the hardest part, due to the sharp Kinneret stones that have to be traversed. Beginnings are usually bumpy, I tell myself, feeling excited, philosophical and a little nervous as I pick my way over the rocks.

A man in a boat gives last-minute instructions. If you have trouble, raise your hand. Shout. A boat or kayak will spell you for a while or take you back to shore. He addresses us as “banot,” the Israeli equivalent of “gals.”

I look left and right; there are indeed some preteens and teens, but most of the swimmers aren’t gals. Definitively women, feisty women.

We count down from 10 and begin swimming. I set a comfortable pace with a variety of relaxed strokes.

I spent a summer as a junior lifeguard when I was 15 and can swim with my head out of the water; this is fortunate. I soon realize that the most dangerous part is avoiding the errant kicks of other swimmers, some wearing flippers.

Soon the pack thins out, as many swimmers slow down. I am alone with my thoughts.

I feel like a kid back at Lake Hayward in Colchester, Connecticut. The swimming teacher entrusted with the water education of all the children would dispatch us to the raft in the middle of the lake where he’d give us our lessons. It never occurred to us that we wouldn’t make it. I’d always look back to see when I’d reached the point where it was farther to go back to shore than to reach the raft.

I quickly reach that point on the Kinneret. Soon enough, the first raft is within reach. I’m among the first batch of swimmers to get there; I wait for the rest of the group to catch up. I’m not a lagger after all. I don’t even consider climbing on the raft to rest and eat. This waiting, not the stones, is the hardest part, I decide. I’m itching to swim on.

At last, we get the signal to continue. Now I’m confident I’m up to this swim, and simply enjoy the water, the exercise and the view. What could be more beautiful than the early-morning sunlight on the Sea of Galilee? I’m literally swimming and singing to myself in Hebrew the words of the poet Rachel, put to music by Naomi Shemer, both of whom lived near the Kinneret: “Where the Golan Heights: Stretch out your arm and touch them!/Silently confident commanded: Stop./ Solitude radiant miracle Hermon grandfather/Chill winds blow upon the white summit.”

A few of my fellow swimmers are now riding in or hanging on to boats. I’m not saying who; what takes place in the Kinneret stays in the Kinneret.

Now I’m thinking of the pioneers who settled the kibbutzim around this lake. They spoke of a “sacred stubbornness” to making life work here, breaking stones, fighting off mosquitoes and planting the heralded eucalyptus trees. Making a go of life here in the Kinneret meant joining a group and working together.

Pioneering was not an individualistic endeavor. The swim-a-thon is also about being part of a group.

Most of the women are middle-aged moms in wellworn bathing suits, who have sat through hundreds of nursery-school parties on little chairs and suffered through countless parent-teacher nights. They’ve cooked thousands of Shabbat meals, cheered their kids and wiped their tears, earned a living in a no-frills country and found time to get out for a swim. What a great group to be part of! I get in conversations with a few of the other women as we swim. We talk and swim, swim and talk.

The last raft is coming up, but this time, we’re not required to wait. The shoreline at Tzemach Beach with its blue waterslides beacons. A burst of new energy sends me swimming with long strokes. I can see the rubber grand-finale arch being blown up as I get closer.

I am infused with a feeling of accomplishment as I power through it.

Our belongings have been transported from the starting line. “Piece of cake,” I text my husband, who will pick me up after we pose for the swimsuit shot in our navy T-shirts/dresses and men are allowed on the beach.

Now, that’s done, I’m thinking with satisfaction.

But I’m already wondering if my daughters and daughters-in-law would like to do this next year. Would they want to do the 3.5-km. route or start with the 1.5? What about my 11-year-old granddaughter, who could do this as a bat mitzva project? To launch the idea, I send them each a photo: Swimmer No. 299 at the finish line.
 

 

 

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