The Surfing Rabbi

November 25, 2011, Judd

I’m paddling our towards Malibu’s famous “Second Peak” break when I see the Surfing Rabbi going clown the line of a sublime, chest-high turquoise wave. His long Chasidic beard sopping wet, Rabbi Nachum “Shifty” Shifren speeds up towards the trim – the shoulder of the wave, the section next to the breaking peak, which dissolves into soupy whitewater – and positions himself for a long ride. He straddles the trim for about 200 yards, which will probably be the longest ride of the day for any surfer here. Shifren’s style is classic longboard; you won’t see him doing any modern-day aerials, floaters, stalls, or 360s.

With my medium-size 7-foot board, I struggle to catch anything. By the time I try to get one extra paddle of momentum to catch a waist-high wave, a handful of longboarders are already popped up, jockeying for the inside position. Shifren isn’t afraid to thread the needle and squeeze between two other 9-foot-plus floating projectiles.

I can’t help but think that this scene should be in a movie and that I’m part of history. It’s safe to say that this is the first rime in the history of Judaism that a rabbi and a Jewish journalist are surfing together.

Winter has recently ended, and on this day I picked up Shifren from his Venice Beach home, half a block away from the boardwalk. We pulled into the parking lot a half-mile north of the Malibu pier at around 7:15 in the morning. It was a Santa Ana day: a cloudless sky, 80 degrees, clear water and perfect offshore winds, ideal for holding up the small but consistent swell.

In between sets, waiting for the next wave, I reflect on Shifren’s autobiography, “The Surfing Rabbi: A Kabbalistic Quest for Soul.” It tells the incredible journey of a man from surfing bum to Israeli soldier to inspirational rabbi. Shifren hopes someday it will be made into a movie.

I remember reading how at age 12 in 1964, Shifren briefly ran away from his San Fernando Valley home, westward, in pursuit of an identity and a purpose. In Malibu, Shifren discovered the counterculture of surfing and tried to emulate early surfing icons like Miki Dora. But I wanted to know what a nice 12-year-old Jewish boy was doing running away from home.

“It was the ’60s, a period of crazy, massive disaffection from the typical ‘Leave It to Beaver’ way of life,” says Shifren, in a laid-back SoCal tone, a refreshing change from the didactic up and clown intonation of many Orthodox rabbis.

“Being Jewish for me was very traumatic,” Shifren continues. “I was aware of my Jewish identity but yet I wanted to be like everybody else. I had no mentors and I was on my own. During the ’60s it seemed you could be a square, a hippie, or be a radical and join the Black Panther party.”

Shifren, who viewed his parents as “totally square,” chose a path somewhere between hippie and radical – he became a surfer. And at that time, becoming a surfer had about as much social cachet as becoming a rail-riding hobo.

“Every teenager wants to find someone to emulate,” says Shifren, who felt directionless when he started surfing. “Hopefully it’s someone that’s a positive role model. But most kids in America don’t find that.”

Shifren knows this all too well. He’s a Spanish teacher at L.A.’s Dorsey High, an inner city school with a largely low-income African-American and Hispanic population.

Occasionally Shifren will take his students to the beach and conduct a surf clinic. “These kids have never been to the beach before and they live only 10 miles away,” he says matter-of-factly.

Before Shifren elaborates on his experiences working with disadvantaged youth, he whips his 9-foot-6-inch board around 180 degrees and takes a few paddles toward the peak of an incoming wave.

Several salty dog (veteran surfers) Malibu locals encourage Shifren. After all, he’s paid his surfing dues, logging a lifetime of epic sessions, including Hawaii’s Pipeline, one of the world’s most treacherous waves.

A couple minutes later, Shifren paddles back to his spot, wedged between the inside and outside breaks.

“These gang bangers with their gangsta rap think they are trapped for life and don’t see a way out,” Shifren continues. “The system has abandoned them. My function is to get them out into a life outside of their normal bleak environment.”

EPIC: Shifren took up surfing in the '60s and has taken on some of the world's biggest waves, like Hawaii's Pipeline.

Shifren would like to take his students on more surf outings but is unable to because of paltry school budgets and insurance and liability concerns.

After high school, Shifren spent two and a half years in Hawaii where he enrolled in some college courses and surfed some of the world’s most exhilarating breaks. In 1972, he began a five-year stint lifeguarding at Malibu in the summers, honing his skills as a bonafide waterman.

He would earn enough money working four to five months out of the year. The rest of the year would be spent on surf safaris with friends, traveling deep into Baja California.

He has lived in Israel on four different occasions. It wasn’t until his third sojourn to the Holy Land that he devoted himself to religion, eventually being ordained as a rabbi at 40.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Shifren volunteered at a kibbutz. He spent half a year there. From 1977 to 1980, he served in the Israeli Army. While he was in the Israeli Army. Shifren didn’t surf at all . “I quit cold turkey,” he says. “I spent my whole life surfing, so I’m able to turn it on and off at will.

In 1980, he was an exchange student in Germany, where he fell in love with a non-Jewish woman and fathered two children. He later realized the cultural differences were too great and felt that his sense of Jewish identity was pulling him away from his German family. He eventually got a divorce and to this day, he rarely speaks to his German children.

He returned to the States and received his undergraduate degree in 1986, from UC Santa Barbara, where he surfed the legendary point, Rincon.

Shifren received his teaching credential in 1987. For most teachers, teaching itself is a job filled with purpose. But for Shifren, something was still missing in his life. At UCSB, he became involved with Hillel (Jewish student union) and eventually “got sucked into” the Chabad (orthodox, observant, celebratory Judaism) life. While at Santa Barbara, Shifren was pulled by two different worlds: surfing and religion.

“There were many times that I agonized about missing some great Shabbat (Sabbath) surf sessions,” Shifren says, keeping his eyes focused on the horizon. “One Saturday I was at the rabbi’s house having lunch and I told him I had to leave to get back to L.A. The truth was I had heard there was a big swell arriving. I tried to leave but my car wouldn’t start.

NOT SO EPIC: Shifren is a master of the old school longboard, but here he's taking it easy at Malibu with our writer Judd Handler (not shown). PHOTO BY ROB WASSERMAN

“The rabbi said to me, ‘I think God is trying to tell you something.’ ”

It’s about 9:30 now and the breaks are unbearably crowded. The rabbi has to get back to his house for a private surf lesson.

Walking back towards my car, peeling off our spring suits, the local salty dogs reminisce with Shifren about the classic clays of surfing. It seems like it’s been a while since they’ve seen him. Shifren doesn’t surf daily but cops to taking off work on epic days. “If it’s double overhead, I’m out of here,” he says.

On the ride back to Venice, Shifren tells me about surfing in Israel, where he formed a surf club in Herzeliya, in 1995. ‘It only gets really big there three or four times a year: it’s not so ideal there for surfing. ”

I want to know more about his experiences paddleboarding from Malibu to Catalina Island, waking up before dawn to coach the Venice High Surf Club, the random emails he gets via his website, such as the one he got from a Saudi Arabian who wanted to know what the surf culture was like and how be was able to be on the beach with scantily-dressed women.

I guess I’ll have to wait for “The Surfing Rabbi,” the movie.

LATE BlOOMER: Shifren didn 't become a rabbi until he was 40. He was turned onto religion when he was "sucked into" the Chabad life at UCSB in the late '80s. He has written a book, "The Surfing Rabbi: A Kabbalistic Quest for Soul. ,.

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.