By Rebecca Seidel
Photos courtesy of Bill Parr Photography.
Nobody turns the tide on the cliched “surfer dude” image quite like Rabbi Nachum Shifren. With a beard that rivals the best of them and Malibu-bred boarding skills to boot, Shifren has spent much of his life merging what might seem like an unlikely pair of pursuits: riding the waves and studying Talmud.
At age 63, Shifren continues to live up to the nickname that granted him worldwide fame: the Surfing Rabbi.
Shifren–who signs his emails with phrases like “hang ten” and “Aloha”–is a Hasidic Jew, practicing within a branch of Orthodox Judaism that blends deep spirituality with strict rules and traditions. While the religious adherence might seem counter to surfer culture, Shifren tells BTR that he sees no reason to isolate these two parts of his life.
“People are in their own little bubbles, you know, so it’s very hard for them to imagine chewing gum and walking at the same time,” he says. “I love being connected with the Torah and I love studying, and it’s a lifetime pursuit. And I just happen to be a surfer, so I think I get the best of both worlds.”
As it turns out, Shifren became a surfer long before he became a rabbi. Decades before he even turned to Hasidic Judaism, Shifren was a restless preteen, itching for some sort of rebellion against his ordinary home life in Los Angeles. Just before his Bar Mitzvah, he ran away from home and hitchhiked around California. He ended up on Malibu Beach amidst some of the era’s biggest surfing heroes.
After tentatively trying his own hand at surfing–and literally crashing into famed surfer Miki “Da Cat” Dora in the process–Shifren was humbled, but still pursued the prospect of becoming a great wave-riding athlete.
“It changed my life,” Shifren says. “I saw the greatest surfers in California at that time. When you’re a young teenager, you’re restless, you’re looking for something to believe in, something that you can dedicate yourself to, so that was a fateful day for me.”
Though he made it back home in time for his Bar Mitzvah, his serious forays into religion were still far ahead of him. First came a long stretch of globetrotting, blundering, and soul-searching. The bulk of these times is chronicled in his 2001 book, Surfing Rabbi: A Kabbalistic Quest for Soul.
Shifren’s spiritual connection with the ocean took him from California to Hawaii to Mexico, where he sought out the most intense waves he could find. He trained to be a lifeguard and made physical fitness a priority. He wrote in his book that as the ’60s raged on, surfing was a way for him to create his own reality:
“In a world of rock concerts, casual drug use, antisocial attitudes about America, and a pervasive anti-establishment attitude, I molded my own regimen based on the continuing pull of the ocean orchestrated to the soundtrack of Endless Summer.”
Despite his love for the sea, Shifren still felt unfulfilled. So he steeled himself for another big change: moving to Israel to join the army. There, he met a German woman who became his first wife. One botched marriage, two children, and two more big moves later (first to Germany, then back to the States), Shifren was pretty much back where he started: as a single, wayward surfer in California.
Things started coming together, though. Shifren started teaching Spanish at a junior high school in Santa Monica. He also began, through weekly Sabbath dinners at the house of a local Chasidic rabbi, to be drawn to Orthodox Judaism. He ended up going back to Israel to study at a Jewish seminary, where he eventually became ordained as a rabbi at age 39.
Back in the US, Shifren resumed teaching at an inner-city public school, where he says he encountered a lot of apathy among students. He turned to surfing as a way to combat his work scenario, eventually starting up a youth outreach program called Surf and Soul. Shifren adamantly believes that a surfing lifestyle can turn children’s lives around, largely through the physical fitness it promotes.
“In this age that we’re living in of total insanity, where 40 percent of our youth is considered either obese or overweight, and with all the problems that we have, it looks to me like surfing has a lot to say about how we can raise our kids to be healthy and with good attitudes and still get good grades,” he says.
Shifren’s Surf-and-Soul philosophy expanded into various other projects over time. He continues to teach the basics of surfing to small groups of people. As it turns out, there aren’t many other places where you’ll find a Kosher Surf Camp.
In addition to working as a teacher, speaker, surf teacher, and spiritual guide, Shifren recently had a brief stint in politics, running for California senate in 2010. In the process, he alienated many with his far-right views, which he didn’t hold back from expressing, and earning him charges of Islamophobia. Though he hasn’t ruled out getting back involved in politics, it doesn’t seem to be on his immediate agenda.
So what is the Surfing Rabbi up to nowadays? Well, not surfing. He’s currently living in Canada with his children and his third wife, Rachel. Being landlocked in the heart of Canada forces a surfing hiatus, but they plan to move back to the sunny coast of California soon.
Rabbi Shifren with his wife Rachel on their wedding day.
Still, even when he can’t surf, Shifren maintains a strict fitness routine, staying in shape by engaging in the athletic activities he can.
“I’m teaching, I’m learning, I’m pursuing my physical fitness, and getting ready for the next race that I need to do,” he says. “I’ll be coming to Virginia Beach in August. There’s a lifeguard championship that I’m going to be in, God-willing, so I’m working out and getting ready for that.”
Soon enough, the rabbi will be back in the ocean. He won’t be wiping out anytime soon.
“[Surfing] is like riding a bike,” he says. “You never lose it, you never get tired of it. I’m always training, I’m always swimming and lifting weights and jogging, so I’ll always be spot-on when it comes to being in shape for surfing.”