The surfing rabbi

Nachum Shifren says shooting the curl kosher-style helps Jews focus on the sea's spiritual power and reminds them, "Being religious is cool!"

Published August 3, 1999 7:07PM (EDT)

"I don't need to preach," says Rabbi Nachum Shifren, an Orthodox Jew who calls himself the Surfing Rabbi. "I just take people surfing and they get turned on to the divine energy of the ocean."

Should the Timothy Leary approach fail, there's always Shifren's book, Web site or video. "Surf and Soul," his self-published autobiography, chronicles a "spiritual journey from Malibu to Jerusalem, as an assimilated surfer travels the world and begins to discover his Jewish soul ... eventually becoming a Chassidic rabbi who lives and breathes the essence of surf and soul!"

According to Tzvi Fishman, a Hollywood screenwriter and author of "Tuvia in the Promised Land," "Rabbi Shifren's journey makes 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' look like child's play!" Since emigrating to Israel four years ago, the 47-year-old has taught hundreds of people to surf, most of them foreign Jews traveling in Israel. "I recently had a yeshiva group of about 50 girls, mainly Americans, and we went surfing -- in modest clothing, of course," Shifren quickly adds. (But the lanky rabbi with the long salt-and-pepper beard is not all that bashful; he swaps his skullcap and prayer shawl for a Body Glove surfing top and spandex trunks when he hits Tel Aviv beach.) Some of the rabbi's other students opt for accompanying him on a Costa Rican surfari, where they harness the spiritual side of a good ride before tucking into 5-star kosher meals and campfire Kabbalah class.

During these excursions, says Shifren, the surf-and-soul philosophy is subtly integrated into a surf lesson. He believes that focusing on the sea's spiritual power aids clarity and concentration for studying the Torah. "If we Jews are disparate and isolated, then how much more so as Jewish surfers?" Shifren asks. His answer was to establish Jewish Surfers International. Its nearly 500 members can recognize one another by their Surf and Soul T-shirts and bumper stickers ("Stick one on your tallis bag and see heads turn in synagogue!"). Shifren says, "Being religious is cool!" and his latest scheme is a Jewish surfer's calendar that will feature a different muscular mensch each month.

Shifren grew up a secular San Fernando Valley boy who napped through Hebrew class. A bitchin' wave was this Malibu lifeguard's only idol, until he met an Australian rabbi who liked to bodysurf and perform sacraments at the beach. Soon after that encounter, Shifren sported a yarmulke and sold his earthly possessions to fund an exodus to Israel, where he enrolled in a Chabad seminary.

When he returned to California in his ordained incarnation, surfers greeted him with, "Right on, Rabbi!" Shifren told Surfer magazine that he introduced gang members to the sport while teaching elementary school in South Central Los Angeles. "They were so stoked to see there's another world out there," the rabbi recalled. "The ocean is neutral turf -- no gangs, no drugs, no authority figures." Asked how he knew they were gang members, Shifren reflects, "I think they were ... they wore baggy shorts."

His second book, "Surf and Spirit," is a compilation of essays from his newsletter's weekly schmooze, which offers a surfer's interpretation of the Torah. In one essay, Shifren suggests that Jews exhibited surfer behavior when they parted the Red Sea: "They jumped into the stormy abyss, no fins, no wetsuits, dude -- no boards! While everyone else is in disarray, while the panicked Moses turns to God for advice as to dealing with the onslaught, a small group of brave people 'paddle out,' heeding only God's implicit instructions: 'Just do it!'" So it follows that surfers are among the chosen ones. "There's no way a skier can get the same connection with the Creator," Shifren argues. "The ocean is the first act of creation, while snow is not an act of creation. Skiers don't have the mountain chasing them, but the mountain of a wave chases surfers. They struggle against currents as they ride waves that have been around since time immemorial."

The Surfing Rabbi will talk religion, but not politics. If pressed on his views, it's evident how he earned the nickname "Shifty." "My politics are not germane to what I'm doing," he demurs. "All I'm about is surfing." Yet he opted to reside in Kfar Tapuah, a West Bank settlement perched a half-hour from the "lousy" Mediterranean surf. Kfar Tapuah is considered an extremely militant, right-wing, anti-government stronghold. "I'd compare its residents to white militants in the United States," says Hagit Yaari, an Israeli spokesperson for Americans for Peace. Yet Shifren insists his dogma embodies the sea's harmonious rhythm, explaining, "I take a wave and there's another wave behind me. It's the law of the surf. There's a wave for everybody." Shifren claims he does not discriminate. "I would love to teach a Palestinian to surf," he says. "I think it would mellow him out."

His calling is to mend the chasm between athletic and religious pursuits. Shifren admonishes Yeshiva students who languish in dim rooms, alienated from the creation they read about in Genesis. "Some people are good at surfing and some are good at learning Torah," says Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, who educated Shifren. "Nachum is not bad at learning Torah, but he's better at surfing. And there's a lot of competition in Israel for learning Torah, but Nachum is the only surfer here!"

Bolton admits that Shifren's self-promotion has caused a splash at the 80-family settlement. "When I first heard of his plans, I thought, He'll probably get a few wackos like himself," Bolton says. "But I've been surprised by his following. I was surprised by his book, too -- he's not a bad writer!"

Shifren acknowledges his rad rabbinism can rub some of his people the wrong way. It once took five conservative rabbis to expel him from their convention after Shifren attacked the Rev. Jesse Jackson by shouting, "If you were white, you'd be called a Nazi!"

"When you're a surfer, you're a rebel," Shifren shrugs. "There are two kinds of people in this world, surfers and everybody else. People who squint an eye at what I'm doing are the everybody else."

By Denise Dowling

Denise Dowling is a freelance writer.

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