Surfing as a soulful experience

A few weekends ago, I squeezed into an uncomfortable wetsuit, braved the murky Northern California waters, and spent three grueling days immersing myself in the art of windsurfing.

What does that have to do with Judaism? A whole lot, if you ask Rabbi Nachum Shifren.

“Surfing is not just a sport,” says the self-proclaimed Surfing Rabbi, a Southern California-born Orthodox rebbe who began catching waves at the age of 11. “[Surfing] is a religious experience. The whole idea of Judaism and many other religions is for the soul to leave the body; when you’re out there in the middle of the vast ocean, you’re not part of the material world anymore. You’re naked on a surfboard, you’re one with the waves.”

I first caught sight of the Surfing Rabbi while watching a surf movie with my boyfriend — the inspiration behind my feeble attempts at the whole surfing-windsurfing thing. Among the plethora of stereotypically bleached blond surfers featured in the film, I suddenly glimpsed a slightly darker figure — a thin man with a long, sopping-wet beard, gracefully gliding over a wave on a long-board.

The camera then cut to an interview with the mysterious man, who turned out to be both a rabbi and a veteran surfing instructor. Against a soothing backdrop of grassy cliffs and the ocean, he talked about his belief in the spiritual elements of surfing and his awe of the waves. With the strings of his prayer shawl dangling in the wind, he looked more “Prophet Elijah” than “Beach Boy.”

At this amateur stage of my surfing “career,” however, it’s hard to think of the sport as anything more than swallowing a lot of saltwater, shivering (even under a wetsuit) in San Francisco’s cold waters and getting hit over the head by my board.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard surfers refer to the sport as a spiritual experience; after all, the ancient sport, in its original form, was connected to Hawaiian religious beliefs. But it was definitely the first time I’d heard a rabbi refer to surfing as a religious experience, and the first time I’d even heard of a rabbi who surfs.

I was intrigued. This wasn’t your grandmother’s Orthodox rabbi. This guy was cool.

One Google search later and I was browsing the Surfing Rabbi’s Web site, I learned that, besides working as a Chabad rabbi and a surfing instructor in Southern California, he also organizes kosher surf camps in Costa Rica and Mexico.

I had to call and speak to the man myself. In tune with his easygoing lifestyle, the Surfing Rabbi was open, friendly and more than happy to explain the seemingly contradicting roles he had taken on as rabbi and surfer.

“When you cross the line into Orthodoxy, they put you into a certain category, and they expect you never to get out of it,” he said from his Venice Beach home. But it’s a mistake for secular people to categorize the Orthodox, he says, and it’s also a mistake for religious people to downplay the importance of attending to both soul and body.

“Religious people are often in bad shape, but they say, ‘It’s okay, our souls are healthy,'” says the Surfing Rabbi, who, in addition to studying the holy books, also exercises a half hour a day and, of course, surfs.

“What better way to thank your creator?” he asks. “When I am in the middle of the water, waiting for the next wave, I look inward and hear the water and feel the power and the beauty. When I catch the gal [Hebrew for wave] and take it for a spin, it’s amazing. There is no other feeling like it in the world.”

Okay, so maybe the heavens didn’t part when I windsurfed. Maybe my thoughts that day hovered less over the spiritual and more on the survivalist aspect of surfing — like whether the Northern California Great White sharks had already eaten breakfast that day.

Still, from those few glorious moments that I actually caught a wave and felt the rush, and enjoyed the beauty of my surroundings, I think I understood how the Surfing Rabbi has been able to merge his religious beliefs with his love of surfing.

“Being part of the world of surfing is a whole way of life,” he told me. “It’s the whole trip, you know.”

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].