From Israel to Alcatraz, 68-year-old is in the swim

Every Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning — when he’s in town, that is — Levy Gerzberg drives from his home in Los Altos to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, dons a wetsuit and swims for 45 to 60 minutes in the bay with a group of anywhere from 10 to 30 people.

A coach instructs them on the route they should take, depending on the direction and strength of the current, and an assistant coach joins them on a stand-up paddleboard. Temperatures in the water range from 52 to 60 degrees.

Levy Gerzberg

At 68, Gerzberg is usually the oldest of them all — by several decades.

While he always enjoyed swimming in pools and in open water, especially in the Mediterranean Sea in his native Israel, his “addiction” (his word choice) to swimming is fairly recent.

Gerzberg first came to California from the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in 1972, to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford University. A decade later, he founded his own company in Silicon Valley and Israel, one that created sophisticated silicon chips for use in the medical and military markets. He called it the Zoran Corporation (zoran comes from the Hebrew word for “silicon”).

Later, he shifted to consumer electronics, using his technology to create the first digital cameras with FujiFilm. That company went public and later began making chips for DVD players, digital televisions and other consumer electronics.

He decided to retire in 2011, at which point his wife and two daughters asked him what he wanted to do with his newfound leisure time.

He had been thinking about freedom, and what it meant to him, and came up with one goal: “I’m going to swim from Alcatraz. Give me one month.”

With Alcatraz in the background, Gerzberg swims in the bay. photo/alisa brozinsky

Alcatraz is 1 1/2 miles from shore, but the rough currents can make the swim seem much longer. It is considered much harder than many open-water swims.

In an online search, Gerzberg found Pedro Ordenes, a Chilean-born swim coach who not only has swum the Strait of Magellan in 39-degree waters, but has swum from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park more than 900 times and does not wear a wetsuit.

After training with Ordenes for four weeks, not only did Gerzberg reach his goal of doing his first Alcatraz swim, but he has since made it from Alcatraz to the shore at least 15 times, nine of them formal events and another six group swims.

“You feel this challenge and freedom while you’re touching nature,” Gerzberg said of open-water swimming. “In the ocean, in particular, you feel like you’re out of this universe. You’re just miniscule in this huge body of water. It’s a fantastic feeling.”

Since Gerzberg has to be in England every two months — he still sits on the board of the company that acquired the    Zoran Corporation — it’s only a short trip to Israel from there, he reasons, and so he visits often and maintains an apartment in Tel Aviv.

He began swimming with an Israeli coach, too. And then he came up with an idea: a charity swim in Tel Aviv. The idea was sparked by the technology consulting work he does with several Israeli hospitals.

This past May, some 400 people swam in the Medit­erranean to raise money to support children in need. Some people swam 1 kil­ometer, Gerzberg swam 4.5 kilometers and others swam 10 kilometers. The swimmers included Gerzberg’s coach, Ordenes, and two others from the San Francisco group in addition to hundreds of Israelis.

Gerzberg and other organizers are already planning another one in Israel next year.

Gerzberg says his favorite thing now is combining his swimming addiction with raising money for various charities. For example, he met the mothers of two children with Morquio syndrome, a rare genetic disease, on a recent Alcatraz swim. The mothers were in the Bay Area with their children seeking treatment. Soon, he was raising money for them.

Levy Gerzberg exits the water at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. photo/alisa brozinsky

“Changing the world one swim at a time,” his daughter, Rony Gerzberg-Reingold, said.

Out of the water, Gerzberg is a supporter of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces; American Associates, Ben-Gurion University; American Technion Society; Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center; Hadassah; and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. He also serves on the board of the American Friends of Rambam.

While in Israel in May, Gerzberg took his San Francisco friends on a special tour so they could swim in three seas in two days: the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.

More recently, Gerzberg joined a group of swimmers on a trip to the Ionian Sea, among the Greek islands, where they sailed on three Catamarans for a week.

“We swam three times a day, 21 crazy swimmers. We probably did eight kilometers a day, between the morning, afternoon and evening swim. It was the experience of my life.”

Ordenes said that Gerzberg is an exceptionally good swimmer for a man his age.

“There’s something incredible about his stamina and also his focus in taking the challenge of any condition in the bay,” Ordenes said. “He’s always positive, always encouraging and always very open to receiving the proper advice. He is very unusual, as I have had hundreds of much younger swimmers who are still struggling with trying to become fully capable of taking these challenging swims.”

Ordenes said that Gerzberg has become an inspirational figure to many of the younger swimmers, as well as like an older brother to him.

“He not only attracts the young athlete but also has taught me so many things, like, no matter how big you might get in life, and how many accomplishments you have, you still must remain humble and share with everyone.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."