Photo Credit: Laura Ben-David

Imagine hundreds of women of all ages from throughout Israel and other countries – such as the USA, Canada, England and Australia – gathering at a lovely kibbutz on the shores of the Kinneret on the evening before the swim for a festive dinner and program, waking at sunrise, donning their bathing suits, matching cover-ups, bright colored bathing caps and goggles, davening, drinking a quick cup of coffee or juice, eating a granola bar or banana, and plunging into the waters of the Kinneret for either a 1.9 or 3.9 kilometer invigorating swim.  

The skies are blue, dotted with a few white clouds. The water is cool with gentle waves. Schools of fish swim by. There are kayaks and motor boats as well as paramedics and lifeguards surrounding the swimmers to ensure their safety. There are long floating rafts to direct the swimmers and to rest on along the way with bottles of water and boxes of fresh dates.  There are family and friends waving and cheering as the swimmers reach the shore. There is an abundance of excitement and energy.  

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It’s not a race and not a competition though many women train for weeks beforehand to prepare for the challenge. It’s all about empowerment, camaraderie, fitness, fun and bottom line: fundraising. 

“This unique event is aimed at helping people with special needs who face difficult challenges every day,” explains Vivienne Glaser, the superheroine behind the swim. 

The Swimathon was Vivienne’s dream 9 years ago. It combines her love of swimming with an opportunity to “payback and give thanks to Hashem for answering our prayers by providing such a wonderful, loving, caring, religious framework for our son, Elchie, just five minutes from our home,” she says. 

“It began as a whim really,” she adds, “and my biggest surprise was after the first swim, people began to ask me when it would take place the following year.” 

“The most important aspect of the Swimathon for me is creating a platform to get people to understand the uniqueness and value of an inclusive village,” she states. “There is no such community anywhere else in Israel. My ultimate goal is that the paradigm created at Sadnat Shiluv in Gevaot in Gush Etzion will be copy/pasted to other locations in Israel and all over the world.” 

Sadnat Shiluv is an integrated educational and residential program for those with special needs, from preschool through young adulthood. It runs a school for special education as well as vocational training at their various facilities, including a horse stable, petting zoo, bakery, coffee shop, commercial kitchen, and more.  

“Sadnat Shiluv provides opportunities for anyone who doesn’t fit into the mainstream,” explains Vivienne.  “The program empowers each student to reach his or her maximum.” 

In addition to registration fees, each participant in the Swimathon must commit to raise a minimum of 2,000 shekel and the funds that are raised are allocated to a particular project. This year, the money raised is earmarked towards renewing and expanding the Sports Center. Vivienne is already looking ahead to next year, the 10th annual swim, when funds will go towards a new Therapeutic Pool. 

I’ve been privileged to participate in the swim every year since the beginning, mostly because I enjoy it so much. When other women ask me if the fundraising is difficult, I respond, “No. I view myself as a shaliach mitzvah for a wonderful cause. Everyone gets a tax-deductible receipt. Thank G-d, I have managed to surpass my fundraising goal each year without too much effort.” 

A recent trend has been the participation of a group of bat mitzvah aged girls who swim with their mothers, sisters, and sometimes even grandmothers, and ask their relatives and friends to sponsor them in the swim rather than giving them gifts.  

This is a perfect example of how the Swimathon itself reflects the educational vision of Sadnat Shiluv: personal empowerment, inclusion for all and giving to society. 

One of Vivienne’s mottos is: “Never decide for someone else what their limitation is. If you empower someone, they will go way beyond their expectations.”  

Among the swimmers in past years have been cancer survivors, a woman who was badly injured in a car accident, a woman after hip replacement, and other women facing difficult personal struggles.  Vivienne points out that there are also teens who have dropped out of school and lost all incentive who join the swim. They are sponsored by donors but in order to participate, Vivienne makes them sign a contract that they commit to train with her three times a week in preparation for the swim.  “Seeing the smiles on their faces, sitting under the sun umbrellas and eating breakfast after the swim, is what I enjoy most,” Vivienne says. “It gives me goosebumps.”  

And, of course, there are also Sadnat Shiluv girls who join the swim each year with family members and madrichot, inspiring all the other swimmers. 

Vivienne would like each swimmer to become an ambassador for Sadnat Shiluv and she encourages the swimmers to come and visit Sadnat Shiluv in Gevaot. They run a coffee shop – Café BaHursha – with a magnificent view, featuring delicious sour dough bread and baked goods, salads, toasts and other nutritious delicacies, which the Sadnat Shiluv kids help prepare and serve. The hours of the coffee shop are Friday mornings from 10:00 – 13:00 and Monday evenings from 17:30-19:00. All are welcome.  

With her characteristic enthusiasm and optimism, Vivienne says that she hopes to reach 400 participants this year. “It’s not impossible,” she insists. “If each woman brings just one friend…” 

The deadline for registration for the swim is May 15. 

To register or make a donation: swim4sadna.org 

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