Words and photos: Jeremy Richards
The idea seems rather preposterous at first glance. What would happen if you took 30 skateboards and 30 helmets and brought them to kids in Israel and the Palestinian Territories? Michael Brooke, publisher of longboard skateboard magazine Concrete Wave came up with the idea of Longboarding for Peace to answer this question.
Although the initial idea came from Brooke, it was a connection with his friend Abraham Paskowitz that got things rolling. Paskowitz is the sales manager of Carver Skateboards in California, and Brooke asked if he had any contacts in Israel. "The Paskowitz family are surfing royalty and have deep roots in Israel. I figured that Abraham must know someone." Brooke's hunch led him to Arthur Rashkovan who is one of Israel's top surfers and heads up Surfing for Peace. The premise made total sense to Rashkovan. “We have made great gains in building ties between surfers across political and cultural borders in the past few years. Expanding our programming to include longboarding was a natural progression. We can include more people, and longboard when there are no waves."
From here, Brooke contacted Matt Olsen, director of Explore Corps, a peace-building organization and the three started to get things rolling in February 2012. "I haven't been to Israel since 1989" recalls Brooke. "I knew that I wanted to come to Israel and be more than just a tourist. I knew that longboards could be a vehicle for fun but I also had a gut feeling they could be tools of peace. I just didn't realize how deeply emotional this whole experience would be."
Surfing for Peace works with the Peres Center for Peace, based in Jaffa. Tami Hay-Sagiv, Director of the Peres Center Sports Department and Sivan Hendel, projects manager worked hard to ensure the demos all came together. "Tami and Sivan were incredibly supportive of this venture" says Brooke. "We are very proud to be working with such an amazing organization that strives to promote peace building via sport."
Take a tour through Jaffa, Sderot, East Jerusalem’s Shuafat Refugee Camp, and Jericho with Longboarding For Peace:
All photos: Yair Hasidof
Follow the jump and take the journey:
Putting together this tour required a fair amount of cross-continental logistics. Concrete Wave is based in Toronto and Explore Corps is in Baltimore, Maryland. With Arthur and the Peres Center seven hours ahead, it took some time to coordinate things. "The most stressful piece of this initiative was ensuring the timely delivery of the longboards and helmets" explains Brooke. "We had huge support from Map Cargo who helped subsidize the shipment from Oceanside, California. But once it got to Israel…well, let's just say that red tape was spotted on a number of occasions." Fortunately, Arthur has experience with getting surfboards into Israel and the gear landed just a few days before the group's first demo in Jaffa.
There were over a dozen skateboard companies that graciously provided product (see the complete list below). "I have some truly amazing advertisers who understood the impact that the Search/Spark/Tour could have" says Brooke. "I am so very grateful for their support." All thirty longboards and thirty helmets will be left with the Peres Center for future events.
Documenting the proceedings were two photographers and one videographer. Yair Hasidof regularly shoots skateboarding and is based in Tel Aviv. Alice Martins is a Brazilian who works with Surfing for Peace and has photographed extensively in Gaza. Uri Richter is an American- born Israeli who is creating a short documentary of the tour. All three captured some incredible moments. Within hours of Yair's and Alice's images being posted on Facebook, tens of thousands of people had seen them and numerous people left many positive comments.
The first demo was held at the Peres Center in Jaffa and took place on July 5. The team assembled an hour before to unload the car and coordinate things. The demo featured a local martial arts club performing first. "The kids were pretty excited to get on the boards, but they sat patiently watching the kung fu moves" recalls Brooke. Joining the club were about 15 Jaffa locals." It was extraordinary to see the children interact with their Tel Aviv neighbors. Normally, these kids would not run into each other, and yet here they were having a great time rolling around joyfully on longboards.
Yoni Ettinger, a pro longboarder for Earthwing Skateboards explained the basics of skateboarding and the kids followed his direction – most of the time! Once they felt somewhat balanced, they immediately started rolling faster. "I have been teaching skateboarding for many years. But most times, I have taught people who have at least some experience. Watching these pure beginners learn quickly was wonderful. Seeing them so stoked was like a gift for me."
As each minute passed, the kids grew more and more passionate about riding. Mickey Kook, of Surfing For Peace found the experience truly transformative. "It is so easy to get caught up in what the media choose to show us – reality always has a way of surprising us, change and open our minds" says Kook. "I can definitely tell you that many minds were opened."
The kids in Jaffa skated for over two hours and were hounding the Peres staff as to when the next session would be. "I knew after the Jaffa demo that we had achieved something magical" says Brooke. "The question was what would things be like in an environment like East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territory of Jericho?"
With their first session under their belts, the team felt energized, but cautious as their next event was to be held in Sderot. Before the demo got underway, care was taken to locate the closest bomb shelter. Sderot had been bombed a week before the team arrived. "Sderot was an absolutely incredible experience and truly emotional for everyone" says Tami Hay-Sagiv. There was one young child from a fairly impoverished family who, as the demo finished up, would not let go of the board that Tami was holding. "I will never forget the look in his eyes."
Follow the jump for the conclusion…
Sderot is the kind of place that you only hear about in the news, but rarely visit. With over 40 children and their parents enjoying the pure energy of longboarding, there is no doubt that the Search/Spark/Stoke tour had brought some much needed smiles.
The following day, Thursday, July 12 began early, at least for surfers and skaters. The team assembled at 8AM and thanks to the generosity of the Peres Center, they were able to charter their own tour bus. With all permits and paperwork being handled by the Peres Center, the group took to contemplating the opportunity that lay before them. Most Israelis just don't go to East Jerusalem or Jericho. The tour picked up their local guide at the East Jerusalem border crossing and as the bus plunged into what was for many uncharted waters, the gang just went with the flow.
"I was nervous about going to Palestinian territories" explains Yoni Ettinger. "I figured I was going to look like an alien to these people. But what I quickly discovered was that we had a bond and that bond was longboarding."
Upon entrance to the school, located in the Shuafat area of East Jerusalem, the team was greeted to the sights and sounds of a puppet show. About 45 minutes later, the skate session was underway. While the boys took to the longboards as one would expect, it was truly exceptional to watch young Palestinian girls and women hop onto the longboards. "It's a scene you probably don't see every day" says Brooke. "Changing perceptions can only come when people are given opportunities to experience something different. I am quite sure these women never expected to be riding skateboards that morning, but I also think they probably were not expecting to meet up with Israeli's and hold their hands for balance."
Ettinger says the East Jerusalem demo was the highlight of the trip. "I held the hands of a Palestinian woman who needed me for balance. I could feel how happy she was and that in turn, made me very happy."
As the demo wrapped up, the group prepared for a tour of Jerusalem via the Arab quarter. Anwar, the local contact for the Peres Center and translator took the gang to one of the best shwarma places in all of Israel. The group bonded over delicious food and took in the beauty of Jerusalem. Yoni was unable to get his longboard through the security at the Western Wall, but quickly skated and met up with group for their journey to Jericho.
Before entering Jericho, the bus picked up a journalist and photographer from the Ma'ariv newspaper. Jericho was recently handed back to the Palestinian Authority. As the bus entered the city, the group got a clear view of the Oasis Casino. The casino was a popular tourist attraction but now lies dormant and desolate. It is next to a five star hotel, giving the visitor a rather odd juxtaposition. Before the demo, the gang took a trip on the gondola that takes you to the top of Jericho. The view is spectacular, but there were few tourists that day.
The boards and helmets were unloaded and a simultaneous translation began. The 25 kids took to longboarding quickly. They were fresh off a soccer practice and some removed their soccer cleats to get a better footing on the board. Over the course of an hour, a bond developed between Arabs, Israel's and those from North America. Even the Ma'ariv newspaper folks could be seen rolling around on a board.
"This truly was an amazing experience" says Mickey Kook. "The energy the crew had was unreal. It was filled with unforgettable moments that will last a lifetime." Sivan Hendel also echoes these feeling."This tour came together as a strong and empowering experience for the children. I know they felt the impact of everyone on the team."
Photographer Yair Hasidoff says he was very glad he got to participate. "No matter which child I photographed, all children had the same facial expression of pure happiness. I felt for that moment, the conflict was laid aside and everyone could enjoy longboarding. It was a rare and very special moment."
For Arthur Rashkovan, there were many incredible memories at the various events. "I remember the kid in Jaffa who just didn't want to leave. I remember in Sderot the very proud girl who kept shouting at her mom to watch her skate for the first time. I'll never forget the image of the one kid in Shuafot who ate a pita and skated at the same time. But most of all, it is the memory of one skater in Jericho who wouldn't let me go – he kept calling me and shouting 'More! More!'"
Everyone involved with this experience understood the message of "search, spark, stoke " and decided to act accordingly. "When I first told people in Canada that I was planning to go to the Palestinian Territories, they honestly thought I was insane. There was serious concern for my well-being" recalls Brooke. "But I can assure everyone that with help from Surfing for Peace/Explore Corps and the support of the Peres Center for Peace, our trip was safe and accomplished something truly significant. We got people to think differently about themselves and the world around them." Brooke sees this as important first step in opening minds and creating a climate for change and eventually peace.
Hay-Sagiv of the Peres Center says it was amazing to see kids from the most shy to the most confident all rushing to the skateboards keen to start exploring and trying out different moves. "Everyone felt included, both boys and girls, old and young, Hebrew speakers and Arabic speakers" Hay-Sagiv says that Longboading for Peace made everyone feel young, rejuvenated and free from the heavy conflict that surrounds people here. "This was an inspiring experience for all of us! It made us all realize again how powerful sport is, especially when you utilize it in the service of peace."
The Search/Spark/Stoke Tour gratefully acknowledges the following companies for their generosity and support: