In these parts, surfers wait for winter storms. While Israel is known as a great spot for beginner surfers during the summer, with waves that range from three feet on an average summer day, a winter swell can reach six to ten feet, which is the time for the more experienced Israeli surfers to hit the waves.
“Whatever’s going on in my life, when I know that a storm’s coming, I start planning a surf morning for the following day,” says Jamie or Hayim Leiter, a Jerusalemite and former Philadelphian who caught the surfing bug as a teen, while on a family trip to the Jersey shore.
A dedicated wave rider, Hayim’s love of surfing has taken him to the beaches of Southern California and Barbados, as well as four years surfing the freezing winter waves off the coast of Rhode Island while in college, and then on Long Island’s Montauk shoreline and Rockaway Beach, before landing in Israel where he’s made his home. When asked if he could have moved to Israel if there were no waves, he shakes his head ruefully, admitting that even now, married with a baby, and studying to become a rabbi, surfing is a major element in keeping him grounded and in touch with life.
“I don’t think I could have given up surfing,” he says with a smile, adding, “It’s a good thing I didn’t have to make that choice. When I’m out there, I’m in nature, and my mind can just be blank, taking in everything around me,” he says. “It’s such a gift.”
He revels in the way surfing has surprised him in Israel, where people and places have a way of connecting in unexpected ways. There was the time he was carrying his long boards on a Tel Aviv street and was stopped by an ultra Orthodox rabbi who wanted to hear about the day’s waves — turns out he was a fellow surfer. Or the time he overheard the surf described as “tohu vavohu,” a biblical term usually used to describe the chaos of creation in Genesis.
Israeli surfing hasn’t been around since biblical times, but a tad more recently, thanks to Dorian Paskowitz, a California doctor who visited Israel in the 1960s with the hope of creating Israeli surfing champions. Paskowitz brought six long boards made partially from balsa wood, each depicting the blue-and-white Israeli flag, and offered them to local lifeguards who had been ‘catching the waves’ with the Hasake, a flat, wide board that had initially been used for near-shore fishing by Arab fishermen.
There are now thousands of surfers in Israel, plying the waves from as far south as Gaza – Paskowitz recently supplied surfboards to Palestinian kids and teens – up through Ashkelon, into Tel Aviv, Herzliya and as far north as Haifa, where the waves are known for their fierceness and height, especially on a good day. One of Hayim’s favorite spots? Palmachim beach, just south of Tel Aviv, not far from the urban sprawl of Rishon Letziyon and Bat Yam. Just a short hour’s drive from his home in South Jerusalem, Hayim gets up around 4:30 am on a surfing day, dons phylacteries in his car before hitting the surf and is back home in time for his first class.
As for the patience it takes to be a surfer, the day-in, day-out wait for the right weather report and then paddling out to the waves and waiting, watching and listening to the sea for that elusive, perfect one-minute ride — perhaps that’s what’s given Hayim the necessary perspective and wherewithal to study for the rabbinate; the daily grind of praying three times a day, living a religious and ritual-bound life, the strive to reach for the spiritual when possible and enjoy the habitual when greater heights aren’t attainable.
As for the rest of us, don’t despair if diving in rough, wave-heavy waters well over your head gives you pause. Like Hayim’s wife, a non-surfer, there’s always the possibility of setting up a beach chair along the shore, or walking barefoot in the shallow surf, searching for the perfect shell. For some, the scent of the sea salt, sand and water rushing past are prayers in themselves.