Treasure Trove: David Matlow takes a look back at the first Jewish training ship, the predecessor of Israel’s modern navy

The Betar Naval Academy at Civitavecchia, Italy was a Jewish naval training school that operated from 1934 until 1938 and trained 200 sailors. Betar, the youth organization of the Zionist Revisionist movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky, believed that seamanship was beneficial to the reconstruction of the Jewish state. Most of the students were from Poland, with others coming from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Lithuania.

Thanks to a wealthy Belgian supporter, the naval academy procured the training ship (named the Sarah I after the donor’s wife) pictured on this postcard. The ship was painted blue and white and had an area for prayer and an Aron Kodesh that housed two Torahs. The Sarah I visited Haifa in 1937 and attracted much attention as the first Jewish training ship in modern history. 

In January 1938, the Sarah I sank in a sudden storm, and some of the crew drowned. Shortly afterward the school closed as Italy passed racial laws which discriminated against Jews.

The Betar Naval Academy is the predecessor of Israel’s navy and produced some of its future commanders.  

Today, Israel’s navy ships act as air defense units, sea-control and interdiction vessels, missile-strike platforms, patrol and harbour security assets. The navy also operates two classes of submarines.

Since Oct. 7, the navy has intercepted Hamas divers attempting to infiltrate southern Israel from the waters near the Gaza coastline. The navy has also been involved in the war against Hamas, serving as the “artillery of the sea” and providing support to IDF ground troops advancing along the Gaza coastline.

It’s been quite the 90-year voyage from Civitavecchia.