The Royal Family of Surfing: the Paskowitzes

November 25, 2011, Judd

Imagine living with your parents and seven brothers and one sister in a camper that’s designed to sleep six. Your family follows the waves up and down the California and Baja coasts. You and your siblings don’t go to school – your parents, the road and the waves are your teachers.

That was life for Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz. Beginning when he was 9, Izzy traveled with his family for six years in a row, and off and on for 20 years.

Izzy, 41 , is the fourth oldest child in the Paskowitz clan. He went on to become one of the best longboard surfers of the 1980s, winning his first contest in 1983. He now runs the Paskowitz Surf Camp as well as Surfer’s Healing, a non-profit camp that teaches autistic children how to surf.

The Paskowitz Surf Camp has been a southern California fixture since 1972. It was originally located in San Onofre and was founded by the patriarch of the Paskowitz clan, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, one of the most famous names in surfing hist01y. At 84, he lives in Hawaii and still surfs six to eight foot waves in Waimea Bay – albeit on his knees because of an injury.

“The family had Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) every single week in the camper,” says Doc, on the phone from his apartment in Honolulu. “Whether we were stark naked in Mexico or grabbing our frozen baytzim in Long Island, we celebrated in our own way.” Doc says most of his nine children are steeped in Judaism. “They spent quite a while in Israel, especially Jonathan, David, Joshua and Abraham (who helped form the Israeli Surfing Association).”

The patriarch Paskowitz was one of the first surfers in Galveston, Texas, in the early 1930s (Galveston was once a major port of entry for Jewish immigrants), before coming to Mission Beach in 1934 at age 13, where he was one of the first surfers in San Diego history.

In 1954 he brought six Magen David (Stars of David) adorned balsa-wood longboards to Israel with the goal of introducing surfing to sabras. At Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv, he ran into local lifeguard Shamai “Topsi” Kanzapolski, who would eventually form Israel’s first surf club. For a short time, Paskowitz even served in the Israeli militaty.

Although Izzy is not observant, his unorthodox (no religious pun intended) upbringing has profoundly shaped his ethnic pride.

“Israel is such a magic place to me,” says Izzy. “My father has taken us there many times and I lived there for a year before I married Danielle,” who is executive administrator of the Surf Camp.

“We have many Israeli surfers that visit us here in San Diego,” says Izzy, who also plans to conduct surf camps for autistic children in Israel.

In 2000, the Paskowitz Surf Camp relocated to the heart of San Diego County in Mission Bay, where Izzy and several of his siblings immerse first-time surfers in the Aloha spirit. Even Doc occasionally visits the camp. The actual surfing is done just across Mission Boulevard, in Pacific Beach.

The Paskowitz Surf Camp also runs weeklong clinics in Cabo San Lucas and Montauk, New York.

While many surfers are familiar with the Paskowitz clan and camps, not as much is known about Izzy’s work with autistic kids. One of his three children, Isaiah, 13, has autism, the neurological disorder that severely disrupts children’s social and emotional development. (Izzy has two other children, Israelah, 16, and Elijah, 9.) Inspired by the way surfing calmed Isaiah, Izzy founded Surfers Healing, a surf camp for autistic kids.

A LIFE AQUATIC: lzzy Paskowitz was raised to eat, breathe and sleep surfing. As a kid, he spent six years on the road in his family's camper traveling up and down the California and Baja coasts. All that preparation paid off: he was a longboard champion in the '80s.

Izzy, who speaks a little Hebrew and Spanish (the mother of the Paskowitz children, Juliette, is an exotic and musically-gifted Mexican with possible Jewish, Ladino roots) talks about what it’s like to witness an autistic child demonstrate unbridled enthusiasm and joy while surfing.

“The feeling I get is so unreal ,” he says. “The emotions I experience are on par with what it felt like when I won surf contests and stood up on the podium getting my trophy … only this feeling is even better.”

Izzy says his son Isaiah reacts positively when he’s in the water, “and like a typical teen, he don’t want his old man following him around.”

Lori Eyraud of San Clemente is the mother of two autistic children, David, 11 , and Sean, 10. “There’s always so much stress on the kids when they’re in therapy,” she says. “But when they’re surfing it’s all about having fun. They are respected for who they are and they feel no pressure to change.”

Eyraud claims that her older son David is now able to surf on his own. “The confidence he has gained in the water has been amazing,” she says.

Izzy has a feeling that Isaiah knows he’s the reason why the Surfers Healing camps were created. “He likes being my poster boy,” says Izzy. “He’s out there at every event surfing. He’s a big boy, 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, so sometimes I’m scared when I’m not there for him. But he is very happy; he has many good days, thank God.”

Still in its infancy, Surfers Healing has garnered valuable media publicity, including spots in the New York Times, People magazine and HBO’s “Real Sports.”

Although surf megastar Kelly Slater and surfwear companies Ocean Pacific and Billabong contribute to Surfers Healing, Izzy says that he needs a lot more help from the surf industry.

“Autism and mental health awareness should be as well-known as Surfrider,” he says, referring to the foundation that works to preserve oceans and beaches.

Still, Izzy is stoked to be in the surfing business. He’s proud to introduce the ancient Hawaiian sport of kings to newbies. He feels it’s his legacy to teach more than just how to catch a wave; but also to give back to the community, including the Jewish community.

“I feel a bit responsible … maybe it’s part of my calling to push more Jewish kids to surf.” And that would be one of the coolest mitzvahs ever performed.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.