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Rabbinical Rad : His Religious Calling Doesn't Drown Out the Song of the Surf


WESTSIDE — No, L.A.'s only surfing rabbi does not wear a skullcap when he's riding the waves at Malibu Point.

Still, he is easy to spot from the beach. He's the one with the long black beard.

In the water, Nachum Shifren generally sports a Body Glove surfing top and an old pair of California state lifeguard trunks that sometimes challenge rabbinical standards of modesty.

But the yarmulke is always waiting on the beach, along with a set of tfilin in case some surfer dude wants to tie on the ritual black leather boxes and say a prayer or two.

Shifren has heard a religious calling, but it has not drowned out the call of the totally bitchin' wave.

"Whenever I go surfing now, guys say, 'Right on, rabbi,' " said Shifren, 41.

The tall, lanky rabbi runs the Center for Jewish Activism out of the living room of his apartment in the Pico-Robertson District, working without a pulpit or any other funds except his salary as a bilingual teacher at Dorsey High School.

With the help of his wife, Rivkah, a graphic artist and amateur matchmaker, he publishes a newsletter and invites unaffiliated Jews for Sabbath lunches of low-cholesterol cholent (chicken, beans and potatoes, cooked in a Crock-Pot overnight) and conversations about the weekly Torah reading.

Their goal, he said, is to show unaffiliated Jews the value of their tradition.

Shifren is an outsider's outsider on the Los Angeles Jewish scene, but you never know how far a little enthusiasm will get you.

This is a marathoner, a triathlete, a man who qualified as a beach lifeguard less than a year after he started swimming, who is credited with reviving the sport of paddleboard racing in Southern California, and who won ordination in the spiritually and intellectually demanding Chabad movement of Chasidic Judaism despite starting with a near-total ignorance of the Jewish lore that others imbibe from childhood on.

He was also a physical fitness trainer for Israeli paratroop rookies and, during a stay of several years in the Jewish state, served as driver for Meir Kahane, the controversial rabbi and politician who was assassinated in New York in 1990.

Shifren makes his political points in public whenever he can wangle an invitation to speak. And sometimes when he can't.

It took five Conservative rabbis to throw him out of their convention in March, when he took on the Rev. Jesse Jackson from the floor of a meeting where he had been invited as a member of the Board of Rabbis.

"If you were white you'd be called a Nazi," he shouted.

"I like the idea of being on the fringe, because my whole life has been on the fringe, living in a van, traveling to distant beaches," Shifren said in an interview at his apartment. An 18-month-old daughter and 4-month-old son cooed, gurgled and screamed underfoot.

"How about a beer?" he asked a visitor. "That's a hold-over from my lifeguard days."

Volumes of the Talmud and other holy tomes fill a set of bookshelves. A rescue board and a smaller surfboard are stashed on the balcony.

"It's so easy to relate to young people who are a little out of it, very cynical, no connection at all to anything," he said. "Surfing helps me relate."

Framed on the wall, a letter from Chief Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, dynastic head of the Chabad organization, blesses his marriage to Rivkah, who was born Jewish but raised a Catholic until she discovered her roots as a teen-ager.

Hoping for the rabbi's blessing on his public work, Shifren has written to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., but has yet to receive a response, he said.

At Chabad's California office in Westwood, the associate director, Baruch Hecht, said Shifren has no formal connection with the organization. Chabad of California runs a network of schools, synagogues and drug treatment centers.

"As long as he's doing mitzvos (good deeds), it's good by me," Hecht said.

Shifren was one of those Valley kids who dozed through Hebrew school, dreaming of the moment when he could hitchhike, board in hand, across the hills to ride the waves at Malibu.

Once known as Norman--"Shifty" to his friends--Shifren was pumping gas at Crazy Carl's service station one day in the summer of 1969 when a pair of high school buddies drove in after a day of life guarding at Will Rogers Beach.

"We'd been making rescues and talking to girls and doing all the things 18-year-olds do at the beach," recalled Tom Snyder, now a carpenter and unpublished novelist. "And he's got his Chevron uniform, grease on his hands, sweat on his brow . . . and a look came over his face like, 'I'm going to do that.' He liked to surf, but he couldn't swim a lick in those days."

Within a year, Shifren had joined a swim club and qualified for the lifeguard service, where Hal Dunnigan, then a training officer, remembers him as "a surfer and paddler and good lifeguard of considerable skill."

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