A group of Ethiopian high school and post-high school students discuss their employment prospects and share stories about their experiences. Some talk about feeling culturally isolated and unable to imagine building a career. A trained therapist probes gently, helping them identify their strengths, weaknesses, issues and setbacks one by one. And then they raise the sails, batten down the hatches, and begin to focus on a more immediate voyage. This unusual group therapy session is like no other; it is held around a fixed table in a sailboat, and the girls are getting ready to not only communicate, but to head out into the open ocean.
Mifrasim, (“Sails” in Hebrew) is a non-profit organization established in 2017 by Assaf Reifeld, Elad Tal, Yosi Sokolov and Yosale Dror, that operates under the auspices of Topaz, an established NGO which serves as a seed incubator for unique social ventures.
A board of nine hands-on volunteers is led by Dr. Ehud Netzer, also a graduate of Israel’s Naval Academy and previously a senior VP at Israeli defense giant Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and director general of the Nuclear Research Center in the Negev. Founder Tal, who serves as director of facilitators and training at Mifrasim, is also a graduate of the Israeli Naval Academy, as well as a group facilitator and psychotherapist.
Mifrasim purchased the Challenge ’67, one of 14 67-foot steel-hulled yachts built by British Steel to race in the BT ‘round the world global challenge. The yacht has circled the world twice, has run charters to Antarctica and placed fourth in one of its competitions. But now, docked in Herzliya, the vessel is helping others address their own challenges through “maritime group therapy” that helps youth at-risk, individuals with PTSD, people dealing with bereavement, polarized populations, those seeking leadership skills and people on the autism spectrum.
Working with a variety of diverse NGOs, Mifrasim’s professionals, staff and 70 trained volunteers tailor the sailing program to support each partner organization’s goals.
“Being at sea opens you up,” explains Dror, CEO and co-founder, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a sailing and kayaking instructor as well. “You feel like you can share anything on a boat. The sailing is a tool, but the focus is the people.”
The program requires an annual commitment by some participants. They meet every two weeks for four hours, and eventually take a trip for several days into the open sea. Shorter programs, like the one for adults with PTSD or who are processing combat experience, involve three voyage/meetings to enable the participants to see real results without having to miss work. Programs for women who have experienced sexual trauma, as well as the one for at-risk youth, have an all-woman crew.
In the plans, according to Dror, is a refit of the yacht to gain another 10 to fifteen years of use, with hopes to grow. He also would like to purchase a second vessel for Haifa and has long-term plans to have ships and groups leaving from Ashdod or Ashkelon as well.
The takeaway for each individual and group will vary, according to the goals set and the experiences interacting—working and communicating with one another. Dror recalls one youth on the autistic spectrum eagerly offering to retrieve a friend’s bag from one of the vessel’s 14 berths. The goals on that trip were to foster communication, independence and caring skills, which can be challenging for those with autism.
Explains Dror, “For this particular young man to venture independently into the ship to help a friend was an achievement.”
Each session begins with a talk—and more importantly, with a lot of listening. Cellphones are relinquished – placed in a decorated “phone box.” The participants are given a safety briefing, and then they set a course. After they’ve begun their voyage, they have a talk at the bow of the ship.
“Being on the ship shortens the therapy process,” Dror says. “No one can leave or ‘run,’ and we need them engaged for the boat to move. We are often dealing with people who are functioning well in society but have never had the opportunity to deal with their trauma. Sailing gives you the opportunity to have a breakthrough and it actually removes the stigma of dealing with the problems and accelerates the process of healing.”
According to Deena Sokolov, one of nine Mifrasim board members and a very involved volunteer who helps with the groups, “Many of our participants have never sailed on the ocean, can’t swim and some were petrified of the boat,” but “after six sessions they are communicating and very comfortable on board.”
Besides marine experience, seamanship and teamwork are combined with therapeutic processes. One bereaved parent said that when she participated in groups in the past, she felt locked in a room with other bereaved parents. On the Challenge, she explained that besides talking, they literally worked through their feelings. An onboard event will spur a discussion on how the work relates to real-life challenges.
The therapeutic work extends to dialogue groups like an upcoming one with Jewish and Arab university-age students. Subsidized by the American Embassy and the Shutfut Foundation, and limited to 10 participants, the co-existence content is led by Mabat group facilitators, Jewish and Arab, to help translate and share dialogue. This is the eighth such group they hosted.
“Mifrasim is completely dependent on donations,” explains Dror. “Along with staff, each trip takes along two volunteers who train to be skippers and learn safety training regularly.”
Nirit Slaney, a volunteer and Mifrasim’s director of development and partnership, had sailed all over the world for eight years. When two of her children announced that she would soon become a grandmother, Nirit decided to retire her sea legs, but discovered Mifrasim and quickly amended her retirement plans.
“I met Yosale and decided to get involved,” she recalls. She now accompanies the sailing voyages and conducts development activities. She recalls a woman who had lost a young child who reluctantly joined one of the 24-hour therapy trips to Acre. The skipper told her that if she really wanted to leave, he would find a way to drop her off along the way. But the seas were especially choppy and the ship was tacking to stay on course. The woman sat curled up, consumed with anxiety. When they finally reached Acre, she was given the opportunity to leave. She declined. With a wide smile, she stayed on board and made it back to the Herzliya marina, feeling accomplished.
Sokolov remembers one young woman in a group of 16- to 18-year-old at-risk women. “She didn’t really want to sail,” she said. “But asked afterwards about her experience, she said, ‘When I looked up at the mainsail, I didn’t think I could do it, but now I know I can do anything.’”
Although there is no definitive research on the modality, according to Dror, PhD Hagit HaCohen Wolf from Hebrew University presented a recent summary, based on surveys taken from the participants. She found a statistical decrease in loneliness and an overall increase in optimism post-sailing.
“We serve a lot of people who are dealing with the most difficult challenges in life,” states Dror.
“That is why our slogan is ‘sailing for change’,” explained Dror. “Challenged by sea, undefeated on land.”