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A Rabbi Who Rides the Wild Surf

November 04, 2001

The aloha ethos of big-wave surfers seems worlds apart from the conservatism associated with Hasidic Judaism. But for Rabbi Nachum Shifren, author of "Surfing Rabbi" (Heaven Ink Publishing), experiencing the ocean's power ignited a desire to connect with his Jewish roots. After stints as an L.A. County lifeguard and combat fitness instructor in the Israeli army, Shifren (who had an agnostic upbringing in the San Fernando Valley) became an Orthodox rabbi, founding Jewish Surfers International and the Surf and Soul newsletter. Shifren, 50, lives in Israel and L.A., where he teaches Spanish and serves as a rabbi at the Israeli Chabad. He is at work on his next book, which explores connections between spirituality and surfing.

Does your beard get in the way when you're surfing?

All the time. People ask, "How is it that your beard doesn't grow all the way down to your belly button [Hasidism forbids cutting it]?" The answer is, "I step on it every time I step up to get on a wave. That's a little bit of a trim."

How does surfing jibe with being a Hasidic rabbi?

In [Hasidism], there's a thing called self-nullification. Basically, it's an idea we're nullified before God. There isn't a means that can do that better than the ocean. It slams you to the bottom, it almost drowns you, it takes over your life.

What's the greatest lesson you've learned from the ocean?

To know myself, my limitations, the greatness I have the potential to have, the unlocked reserves of stamina, of courage that wait to be unlocked through the challenge of the ocean. Bottom line, to get out of myself.

What parallels are there between surfing and ecstatic mysticism?

The ultimate reality of the soul is to leave the body, to be transcended into the source of the soul itself, which is God. Very few surfers are aware of the cabalistic connection with the soul. They're just interested in having fun. However, there is this feeling of being no longer connected to the body. You're going 50 miles an hour to a point where it's like rapture.

What's your favorite surf spot?

At Malibu I get this feeling of being one with the wave because the waves are so perfect there. There's a concept called trimming, of being completely in the power spot of the wave. I've surfed 20-foot waves in Hawaii, [but] it didn't happen for me that often, whereas with Malibu it's very consistent. What should a spiritually minded surfer do when somebody steals their wave?

Don't get excited about it at all. Just remember that you're basically a nothing in the sum and substance of life and the universe. As it says in the ethics of our fathers, the ultimate hope for mankind is worms. If you think about it, you realize it's not a big deal. Just paddle right back out and pretend like nothing happened, and that's part of connecting with God.

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