Australia's Proudest Export: Nippers Program Launches On Israeli Beaches

11/03/2016 1:01 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Surf Life Saving Israel / Fairfax Media

Red and yellow flags are planted in the sand on Australian beaches each day when the sun is edging over the horizon and only the keen surfers are out bobbing on the glassy morning waves.

The flags represent a safe haven for swimmers -- a pocket of certainty in a sea of rips and waves and rocks.

As the sun climbs higher, the flags become a meeting point for cheeky little nippers, families sprawling under umbrellas and sun-bronzed teenagers -- the swatch of sand between the poles is quickly stamped with footprints, towels and saltwater drips.

flags beach nippers israel australia surf life

Australians know the red and yellow flags mean safety.

So when Surf Life Saving Israel president Steve Rubner drove a red and yellow flag into the white sand of an Israeli beach last year, it was a symbol -- the best of Australia’s culture finding a new home.

A culture that saves lives.

“Seeing those flags was quite an incredible, warming feeling,” Rubner told The Huffington Post Australia.

“Here was this long, white beach, with a big, blue sky and nippers running into the water over by the red and yellow flags but it’s not Australia, it’s Israel.”

This Sunday, Rubner and a team of new friends including NSW Premier Mike Baird will officially launch the Australian chapter of Surf Life Saving Israel which has introduced flags to an Israel beach and is holding the first nippers program outside of Australia.

This is the story of how a dedicated community saw the value of Australia’s nippers, and strove to create an Israeli version.

flags beach red yellow

The red and yellow flags are at most beaches in Australian capitals.

The seed of an idea

Rubner spends part of his year in Israel, and he was alarmed by how often the newspaper would read: ‘Five Drown Over The Weekend’.

“It’s just horrendous,” Rubner said.

“In Israel, summers are long and hot and there are lifeguards at the beach but the culture is different. People don’t grow up learning about how to spot a rip and water safety like we all do in Australia.

"It's a completely different beach culture and when we'd read those headlines, it was just so shocking to us."


Beach culture is different in Ashdod, Israel.

When his wife returned from the beach after witnessing an inept rescue, they decided there must be something they could do.

“We didn’t know what, just yet, but we thought education was missing. It was my wife who first mentioned an Israeli nippers program.”

Australia’s community

With a seed of an idea to create a nippers program, Surf Life Saving Australia came to the table, offering their valuable intellectual property as well as support.

When word of the project came to NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive officer Vic Alhadeff, it connected with him on a personal level.

It took him back to New Year’s Day, 1988 when he was wading into the ocean at Whale Beach, Sydney, about 18 months after he migrated to Australia.

“I always enjoyed the surf, nothing adventurous, but I was bodysurfing, and the next thing I knew I was caught in a rip,” Alhadeff told HuffPost Australia.

whale beach vic alhadeff

Whale Beach has a notorious rip.

“Waves were just crashing over my head and I began swallowing water and I completely panicked.

“I actually thought my life was over, I had notions of never seeing wife and kids again.

“In the midst of all this panic and turbulence, suddenly a guy materialised in front of me.

“I lost consciousness at that point.”

The lifesaver brought him ashore and he made a full recovery but the experience changed him.

“That sensation never leaves you,” Alhadeff said.

“All these years later, I love the surf, but whenever I go into water, that awareness is there.

“With that background I very strongly and avidly support such a program as nippers. Generating awareness of the need for our kids to be safe in the water, to understand how to manage problems like rips, it’s an honour to be able to add my support to the project.”

Alhadeff’s passion was shared by the community and Rubner said he was soon receiving $50 donations from pensioners, swimming coaches and one 13 year old girl who donated more than $700 given to her for her Bat Mitzvah. Big players including the Pratt Foundation and Gelatissimo also came onboard.

“All this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for a small group in the Jewish community who donated to cover the cost of buying equipment like rescue boards, CPR dummies,” Rubner said.

“People understand the concept – that this will save lives – and their support has blown me away.”

An Israeli in Australia

The nippers events at the NSW Surf Life Saving Championships are the best kind of chaos -- children pack the beach as heats take off running, splashing and paddling.

For Surf Life Saving Israel general manager Royi Levi it was an especially inspiring scene.

He's one of a team of Israelis who have been trained by Australian lifesavers to create a nippers program. He knew nippers was popular in Australia but he told HuffPost Australia he couldn't have imagined the scale of this NSW event.

"It was something enormous to me," Levi said.

"You really understand what’s going on when you are there, and you can see how big it is. We hope to get there at some stage, it’s beautiful."

And they are definitely on the right track. He said they were expecting about 20 children to join their first nippers camp in 2015, but 77 children qualified.

"We had a waiting list because we couldn't fit everyone in," Levi said.

"Already, the parents are saying their children are more confident in the water, and it is the children who are now telling their parents where to swim.

"They say 'no mum and dad, swim between the flags'. We never had flags before.

"If we save one life, that is something to me that can't be measured in money or anything else. What we're doing is very special."

A flag of hope

Red and yellow flags now stand like sentinels on the sand in the city of Ashdod, and Rubner said there were plans for more cities to take on the program.

“Eventually, we want to see those red and yellow flags dotted up and down the Israel coast just like in Australia,” Rubner said.

When he thinks back to a conversation he had with his wife 18 months ago, wondering what could be done, he feels like he’s had help above and beyond the generous community.

“It almost feels like an act of god,” Rubner said.

“This program will save lives, and it has so much potential, and I didn’t necessarily set out to do it.

“There is a saying, if you save one life, you save the whole world, and what we’re trying to do here is to save many worlds.”

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