I don’t have a “sport.” I’ve never been a diehard fan of any of the mainstream pastimes. I never painted my body or screamed obscenities at a referee. I barely even watch the Super Bowl commercials. But that’s not to say I’m not athletic. Since my youth, I’ve participated in alternative hobbies. I skateboarded, snowboarded, and even wake boarded for a time. But the only endeavor that stuck is surfing. Thirty years after I stood up on my first wave, I still find time to get in the water regularly.
As much as I love it, my relationship with the sport is complicated. I’m not your average surfer. There are a good number of rabbis who surf, but as far as I know, I’m the only mohel in the lineup. A religious disposition is not the norm, even in the Jewish State. And to make matters worse, outside of our homeland, the war has made tensions even higher.
These issues did not begin in October. A few years ago Mukua Kai Rothman was touted as riding the largest wave to date. The headline in the Jewish press read, “Hawaiin-Jewish Surfer May Have Ridden Largest Wave of All Time.” Due to the convergence of my two worlds, I was pretty excited. I shared the article in every Facebook surfing group I belonged to. The reaction was shocking. “What does it matter if he’s Jewish? We’re just people!” “Take this religious crap out of here!” were just some of the comments.
For certain people, these reactions might have been a red flag, but I pressed on. After the war broke out, I shared an image of a surfer walking out of the water dragging his board and waving an Israeli flag. The responses were similar to the previous time. “Why would you post that here?? You’re just trying to be provocative!” they said.
But not all the comments were negative. There are some Jewish people and non-Jewish allies in these groups who showed their support. This positive feedback has given me motivation to continue “poking the bear,” if you will. And such was the case with my latest post.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Shaun Tomson, the South African 1977 World Champion, was coming to Israel. But it wasn’t just that — he was coming because he had a renewed connection to his Jewish identity since Oct 7. Professional surfers rarely visit this region and, if they do, it’s the lesser-known types, coming to do a story for a magazine. Don’t get me wrong, those visits are also exciting, but this was something different.
Tomson, who grew up secular/semi-observant, wrote on social media, “I am no longer Jewish, I’m a Jew. I am a proud Jew who stands against the hatred of antisemitism. I hope you will join in the existential struggle against evil.” The event he was publicizing was to be held in Tel Aviv, just after Shabbat – I wasn’t going to miss it.
But I had to share his post in the surfing groups. As I wrote on my own feed, I couldn’t have been prouder of Tomson on every level. If you thought the pushback was bad on the other posts, it was nothing compared to this one. “A truly pathetic and divisive attempt to equate the serenity, beauty, and spiritual essence of surfing and surfers with the murderous, hateful, psychopathic, bloodthirsty Zionism and Zionists. Take cover, a backlash is building against Zionists that will unfortunately, include many genuine peace-loving Jews,” one of the comments read.
There isn’t enough time to completely unpack this statement, or any of the others that appeared, along with all the hate they encompass. But it demonstrates how much disgust there is for Jews and Israel in the online surf community. And that’s why I’m so impressed with Shaun Tomson. He chose to stand with his people despite the potential personal loss he could suffer.
The minute Shabbat ended, my son and I sped off to Tel Aviv to attend the event. We were an hour late and the sound system in the packed room was abysmal. From what I could discern, Tomson’s motivational speech was a moving message to all in attendance. He came to give us hope. All of his many failed attempts at contests and massive waves taught him to always get back on the board and paddle back out.
When the event concluded, we waited with all of the other fans to have our picture taken with him. Just like other public figures, Tomson has a stock smile for each shot. There’s no doubt it comes from years of practice. But just before our turn, a woman spoke to him in broken English saying, “I’m from the Gaza Envelope, from a town next to Be’eri.” Tomson’s smile vanished and his eyes filled with empathy. “You’re lucky to be alive,” he said, holding her shoulder.
When our turn arrived, I thanked him for all he’s been doing for the Jewish people. We shook hands and headed on our way. With pictures in tow and smiles on our faces, we began the hour-long drive home. Sure, we spent twice as much time in the car as we did at the event, but we got to meet a legend.
Through the years, Shaun Tomson has always been a consummate gentleman. But this trip to Israel showed his true colors. He, unlike so many others, can see the difference between good and evil and he’s doing his part for the Jewish people and the whole of the free world. It made me feel proud to be a surfer and a Jew.