Oran Bendelstein, 33, has always loved to surf. As a kid growing up in Atlantic Beach, New York, he preferred getting up on his board to studying, or even playing video games. It’s a passion he carried into adulthood, with the creation of ReSurf, a nonprofit that refurbishes used, donated surfboards and ships them to underprivileged youth in Israel, Mexico, Long Island, and San Diego. So far, he—or, rather, his boards—have reached more than 500 teenagers. That number will rise yet again this month, when ReSurf, already in the Netanya area of Israel, comes to Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Akko.
“I think it’s important to give over something that I have and love,” said Bendelstein, from his home in Long Beach, New York. “That something is surfing. It can change your life in one second. I can give these kids a sense of personal value and community and the tools to succeed. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Bendelstein has always been interested in volunteer work, but it was after Hurricane Sandy that he decided to amp up his efforts and launch ReSurf. In 2008, he had started his own screen-printing business, but four years later, when the hurricane hit, all of his equipment was shut down for four months. “Sandy made me take a step back from my business and look at looking at ways of giving back,” he said.
At the same time, Bendelstein, who is Orthodox and prays at “the Bach,” a Chabad-run synagogue in Long Beach, on Long Island, was working part-time overseeing children’s programming at the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in New York. There he met a local philanthropist who told him about a program at Yeshiva University that offered a certificate in Jewish philanthropy and development. Bendelstein enrolled. “When the class ended, I realized that I could make a career out of what I learned,” he said.
By Passover of 2013, Bendelstein had launched ReSurf, a three-year program of surfing lessons, classes on oceanography, and 150 hours of volunteer work, which includes cleaning beaches. Teenage participants also learn how to make short movies (no longer than 3 minutes) about their experiences, and in their final year, they have the opportunity to become surfing instructors themselves. ReSurf builds a “ReSurf Shack,” which houses the surfboards, computers, cameras, wetsuits, board shorts, and whatever other tools the teens need to surf, film in the water, and educate themselves about the sport. Bendelstein and his evolving volunteer staff of about 150 also host a weeklong leadership training for temporary ReSurf staff on the ground. After the leadership team leaves—typically after a week—participants keep the program going. The ReSurf team checks in throughout its duration.
“We’re taking all the tools that go into the culture of surfing, and we built a program for these kids to help lead them toward a positive and productive life,” by fostering teamwork, encouraging kids to stay in school, and teaching them responsibility and discipline, Bendelstein said. “It’s almost infectious. Once you step into the sand, you get a little in your toes, and it’s hard to get out.”
ReSurf first went international two years ago, when it took up residence near the Israeli coastal town of Netanya. Specifically, it created a local program at the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village, which was established in 1948 and houses 400 teenagers from poor backgrounds. Like other youth villages around Israel, it offers social services, schooling, and vocational programs.
In three years, the number of participants has grown from 12 to 76, said Natan Biton, the village’s director. “You see these kids who were super hard the first year,” said Biton. “Now, when you see them, they light up. They take leadership roles. You can see the appreciation and the love in their eyes.”
Bendelstein got to Hadassah-Neurim through Tal Matchoro, who established Israel’s Surfing Sports Academy in 2007. Like the kids ReSurf tries to reach, Matchoro himself was energetic and unable to concentrate as a young boy. But at 13, he began to explore surfing, wind and kite surfing, and standup paddle boarding, which gave him focus. Eventually, he became the Olympic coach for the Israeli windsurfing team before opening up the Surfing Sports Academy.
“My vision was to spread this way of life to as many kids as possible,” said Matchoro. “Unfortunately, this education is available mostly for kids that have a very supportive and wealthy family. I always wanted to break this obstacle.
“Kids learn what a difference there is between what they think they can achieve and what they really can achieve,” Matchoro said. “They face the challenges that the sea and changing weather conditions make them withstand. It makes every challenge in life appear in a different perspective.”
In the Mexican town of Rosarito, where ReSurf launched a program this June, the challenges participants face are ample: drugs, gangs, and dropping out of school. For 250 volunteers in San Diego, it meant getting together more than 100 surfboards to send across the border.
Fifteen-year-old Zach Katz was among the California crew. He got involved with ReSurf after learning about it at school. “I love surfing,” he said. “It’s an escape from everything. When I’m out there on the board, I’m in my own little world.”
Katz and his mother volunteered their time and donated his surfboards to the teens in Rosarito. A Spanish speaker (he grew up in Mexico), Katz also traveled to Rosarito to teach his Mexican peers how to get up on the board. “I thought I could change people’s lives with surfing,” he said. “It’s what I love to do. I see how it changes people for the better.”
As for Bendelstein, he’s aiming for further international expansion. By March, he plans to launch a surf club in Jamaica. And closer to home, he hopes to establish a chapter in the Rockaways, in New York—already something of a mecca for surfers in the Big Apple, and an area that was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy.
“I’m a passionate surfer and Jew,” Bendelstein said. “It’s great to be able to do something that I love. I go into these places and give them the amazing tools to help them. That’s the most rewarding thing.”
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Kylie Ora Lobell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who’s been published in The Jewish Journal, Time Out New York & LA, xoJane, Dell’s Tech Page One blog, and NewsCred.