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Always On Guard

Chananel Shapiro

Zohar Nini knows what it’s like to pull someone out of a watery grave. Realizing life’s fragility transformed one of Israel’s only shomer Shabbos lifeguards

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

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ON GAURD Zohar Nini, on guard at the Rishon L’Tzion beach, says even the best swimmers can get swept away if they don’t pay attention to the warnings on the shore

"H

elp! Someone went into the water but didn’t come out!”

Although more than two decades have passed, Zohar Nini remembers that shriek as though it happened yesterday.

“It was my first year working as a lifeguard,” he recalls. “I was working at the Winter Station, a rescue station that’s active all year around, even when it’s raining. It was already late, and I was ready to wrap up my shift when I heard the desperate cry and realized someone was in danger. It turned out that a swimmer had entered the water, but no one had seen him emerge.

“It was a very stormy day, daunting even for someone like me, who’s familiar with the water in its most turbulent state. A black flag was flying and the sea was covered with foam and waves several meters high. But I didn’t think twice. I took my rescue tube and ran in the direction they showed me. I knew the chances of finding the man were slim because the sea is endless, and as soon as someone enters an unauthorized beach, they can be swept off in any direction. The people on the beach tried to show me where they saw him waving for help and I dived in. I swam as fast as I could, and suddenly I noticed a hand protruding from the water. The man was already exhausted. He couldn’t swim anymore. He could only lift his head above the water to breathe and then lower it again. It turned out that he hadn’t noticed the flag, and he was an albino — his light skin made it hard to locate him in the water. It was a miracle that I noticed him.”

Every summer Zohar remembers this story, and this summer, after yeshivah bochur Shimon Yochai Lasri z”l came to the sea to immerse on Erev Shavuos and drowned, followed by a string of drownings that have occurred since the beginning of the swimming season in Eretz Yisrael, it’s no different.

“As a lifeguard, I can testify that miracles happen every day at the sea,” says Zohar. “Each day, we save people who were seconds from death. But we can’t rely on miracles. To be saved from stormy seas, you absolutely need an open miracle — and there are those who, unfortunately, we can’t save.”

As much as he wants everyone to have fun, Zohar can’t control the waves. “If they come all the way on a special bus and see a black flag, they start pressuring the lifeguards”

Zohar can’t forget that rescue early in his career for another reason: The incident drew him closer to Judaism and convinced him to stop working on Shabbos, becoming the only lifeguard working at Israel’s authorized beaches who doesn’t put in a seven-day workweek. It’s also made him take a stand against bochurim who swim at unauthorized beaches, fathers who hit the waves with their kids after hours, and everyone else who’s sure “it won’t happen to me”.

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