A YEAR OF HOPE; A PROFESSIONAL JEWISH SURFER’S PERSONAL CODE TO RIDING THE NEXT WAVE INTO THE NEW YEAR
A YEAR OF HOPE; A PROFESSIONAL JEWISH SURFER’S PERSONAL CODE TO RIDING THE NEXT WAVE INTO THE NEW YEAR
As the New Year approaches we wonder ‘what will be’? We have had to deal with disorder and change. Many in our community have lost businesses, homes, savings, jobs, and loved ones.
What will Shul look like for the Holidays? Will we hear the Shofar? Nothing seems the same and we want and need hope.
It is interesting that the ocean with its tides, currents, and waves is a very turbulent and chaotic place. Yet for many, it is amid the chaos of the sea that brings solace, peace, and comfort. Many find it comforting in a time of stress to go to the beach. The ocean and its waves can bring comfort to us as a community and hope for the coming year.
Shaun Tomson, now 65, is married 30 years to his wife Carla and a loving father to their 11-year-old son Luke. Some of you may recognize the name, Shaun Tomson, who in 1977 was the World Surfing Champion and he won 19 major pro events. He surfed professionally from 1969 to 1990! To this day he is credited for bringing surfing to a professional level and changing the way waves are ridden. The young professional surfers of today credit him as being one of the greatest surfers ever and for having paved the way for them today. Tomson is listed among the Top 10 surfers of the century and he is a deeply connected Jew.
Shaun spoke with the Hillygram about being a surfer and a deeply connected Jew and how both helped save him from the darkest depths of despair after the untimely and tragic loss of his son Mathew fifteen years ago.
Shaun was raised in Durban, South Africa. The original family name was Tomshinsky.
“My parents lived through the Second World War, and both endured many trials and hardships. They taught me that life is about passion, purpose, perseverance, hope, and prayer. My mom, Marie, survived 3,400 air raids on the island of Malta, the most heavily bombed territory in world history. My father, Ernie, was an air gunner in the South African Air Force, and a champion swimmer, whose dream was the Olympics, but a shark attack in Durban ended that dream. My dad played a tremendous role in my life and my career as a professional surfer and passed away at the age of 57. Both my parents and my mother still today, end every conversation with “G-d Bless.” We were never a particularly religious family in terms of dogma but we were a family of deep faith and deep connectivity to God. That connection to G-d is very strong in my life.”
Pictured: Shaun’s mother Marie with Shaun & Carla’s son, Luke
The GUNSTON 500; A FAMILY LEGACY
Shaun’s beloved father, Ernie founded the first-ever professional surfing event in South Africa, The Gunston 500 in 1969. This month marks the 52nd anniversary of the event.
In 2018 Shaun went back to Durban for the 50th anniversary of the event. He affixed a plaque on a bench overlooking the ocean in honor of the memory of his beloved father which reads:
“He loved surfing, and he loved surfers and he loved the honor of competition”
Shaun’s father would remind him “When you win, win like a gentleman and lose like a man” – His father would also remind him “It is easy to take a win but it is very difficult to take a loss. It is through losing that you learn the most about yourself.” Shaun remembers, “Because of what my father instilled in me I never protested a loss, yelled, or lost my cool. I just simply looked ahead to the next wave.”
HOW MUCH TIME DID YOU PUT INTO SURFING TO BECOME A PRO, TO BECOME THE BEST SURFER IN THE WORLD?
“During my time on the tour, I believed I was the most ‘stoked’ surfer. I spent more time in the water than anyone else. I would surf 8 hours a day, not to become the best surfer in the world but because I loved the sensation. I just loved the sport.”
CONNECTION TO THE LAND OF ISRAEL
In 1982 at the height of his pro surfing career Shaun, 25 was invited to Israel to surf in a contest. This was to be the first-ever professional surfing contest in Israel.
“After a long flight we landed and I got off the plane at the Ben-Gurion airport when I heard hundreds of people screaming and shouting and I thought to myself there must be some big rock star arriving. As I got closer I heard they were chanting my name! I could not believe I was so popular in Israel.”
The contest was to be held at Hilton Beach in Tel Aviv.
“We drove from the airport to check into my room at the Hilton overlooking the beach. I was staying on the 13th floor. I looked out the window at the ocean. I’m supposed to surf the next day for this big contest, but the ocean looks like a lake, absolutely flat with no waves whatsoever and I thought to myself, ‘ there’s no way there’s going to be a contest tomorrow.’ When I woke up the next morning there were 4 to 6 feet waves and again I thought to myself, ‘only the Jews could pull this off!’
Q: Did you feel any kind of connection to the Land?
“Yes, amazing – I feel that there is a genetic connection. That experience of going to the Kotel for the first time just stays with you.”
Q: We all have fear. How did you overcome your fear of taking giant waves? How did you deal with fear?
Shaun has surfed some of the biggest and most dangerous waves in the world.
“Standing on the beach in Hawaii and watching 30-foot waves smashing down on a relatively shallow coral reef there is this fear associated with this sensation of surfing. With this anticipation is dread, it is sometimes overwhelming. I did however have this incredible confidence in my abilities to hold my breath for 4 minutes if I was held under. I knew physically I was at the top edge of any other surfer in the world.”
“One must also have commitment and desire. This coupled with ability gave me the confidence that I could take it on and that I could crush that fear. I remember paddling out and seeing these enormous waves breaking and my heart was pounding. The moment I would swing around and start paddling for that wave my fear would vanish.”
HUMILITY AND FEAR OF GOD
“Only once in my life in relation to humility, fear, and G-D, I had this massive wave at the Bonzai Pipeline – a massive wave as big as could be ridden, 15 feet high! I took off on the wave, made the bottom turn, and rode inside the tube. It was the biggest tube I had ever been in and the most dangerous. As I was riding forward, it was low tide, the water became black and I could see the jagged reef ahead of me. I knew if I didn’t cross this 20-yard long portion of the reef when the wave was at its most powerful, I would die. This was the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt this overwhelming feeling of dread and fear. For the first and only time ever on a wave, I said these words ‘Please God don’t let me die!’ And as I said those words the wave exploded behind me and pushed me forward out of the tube with this incredible spray and shot me like a cannon from inside the wave and over the shallow part of the reef,. I call this spray the “BREATH OF G-D”. While I was riding this wave I had this connectivity with God.”
This video is raw footage of the ride at the pipeline described above where Shaun
for the first and only time in a wave asked G-D “do not let me die”. Toward the end of the
ride, he is “spit out” of the wave and over the reef by what he called “The Breath of G-d”.
Shaun pioneered the way waves are ridden, way ahead of his time.
Q: What is the “CODE” and why did you write it?
“I wrote this CODE 20 years ago when I was asked to speak to a group in order to bring awareness to an environmental issue concerning a section of beach that had sewage spilling into it and it was making swimmers and surfers sick. The CODE then became part of my talk to students and corporations.”
“After the passing of our sweet boy, I used the CODE as a way of giving to others and helping myself heal. My CODE turned into a whole new career path and a system of values that I share with others.”
Q: What was your inspiration for developing the CODE?
“When you STAND UP (on a surfboard) for the first time, you see the world differently. Your life is transformed in that one moment as you ride that invisible band of energy.” – Shaun Tomson
“We all have our own unique relationship with G-d. Judaism is based on Torah and Laws (CODES). Praying and prayer and the personal relationship with God are central to being a Jew and it was important that the CODE I wrote be intertwined with my faith and relationship with G-d.”
“Anyone can write their own code. Just set aside 20 minutes and write 12 statements starting
with the words ‘I WILL’.”- Shaun Tomson
WHEN SHAUN WROTE THE SURFER’S CODE, HE HAD NO IDEA THAT IT WOULD
HELP GUIDE HIM THROUGH TRAGEDY
“In 2006 while our 15-year-old son Mathew and my wife Carla were in South Africa – he was there for a semester at my old school – ( I was in the United States), he read me over the phone the most beautiful essay about going surfing, containing the words “The light shines ahead.” The words stuck with me. “The light shines ahead.”
“Deep inside the barrel, completely in tune with my inner self, nothing else matters, the hard wind, and spray shooting past me from behind, my hand dragging along the wall, the light shines ahead. My long hair carried by the wind. My feet are in perfect placement on the board.
As I lean forward I feel myself speeding up getting faster and faster as the barrel starts to close. I crouch down until my legs burn and I then pull out to the whole lineup cheering. My body tingles with joy and happiness. That was the day I became a man.” -Mathew Tomson
“…2 hours later Mathew was dead, killed by playing a dangerous game that we think he learned about at school.”
“When I got the news I thought that God had abandoned me.”
Q: How did you maintain your faith in God after the death of your son?
“I initially thought that God had forgotten and deserted me. I couldn’t comprehend how God would let this happen to me, after all, l had been a good person. I was destroyed and sunk down to the lowest level of hopelessness and darkness and absolute sadness. Bereavement is an unusual word, but the word ‘bereft’ like ADRIFT, you are inconsolable. It is like you are on a ship without a rudder that is sailing into a cyclone being driven toward darkness and despair. But slowly you start to find hope again. But you could only find hope through faith that God is actually there. After a time I felt like I found God again, it was like He came to me again.”
“MY ADVICE TO ANYONE THAT SUFFERS A HORRIBLE LOSS “
“Acceptance of the situation, acceptance of the reality of the loss, this is one of the hardest things anyone has to internalize. For example, the realization that you will never be able to hug or kiss your child again is dreadfully crushing but you have to accept this new reality. You cannot contemplate ‘what if’?. The what-if will lead you down a labyrinth of darkness. I feel you have to forgive unconditionally, yourself and anyone who you think might have been associated with the loss of your loved one. Forgiveness is cathartic and calming.”
“Take all the love and help from friends and family that you can get. My mom, my wife’s mom, my sister, my wife’s sister, all of our cousins were angels, they were all simply wonderful to us.”
THE SPIRIT LIVES – CONNECTIVITY TO YOUR LOVED ONE AND GOD
There is some comfort in knowing that the spirit lives and what you think you’re feeling, you are feeling. There is this infinite connectivity with your child or the person you lost, there is this wonderful connectivity. Then there is your faith.
“For me faith was important. My faith in God helps me maintain my connectivity with my child. I held on to the words “the light shines ahead” from the poem Mathew read to me over the phone just hours before his passing. I held onto these words like a touchstone or a mantra if you will. It was something I could hold onto in relationship to my faith in being a Jew. I would sit there in my old shul where I had my bar mitzvah and look up at the Ark where the Torah is. Then I look up at the lamp, the ner tamid, the lamp of everlasting light, and I would feel that connection to my boy. That eternal G-dly light was very uplifting to me- to just sit there. I didn’t have to read or participate, I could just sit there and contemplate.”
Seek professional help. People you can talk to. A great Jewish psychiatrist in South Africa told me, ” you don’t realize it now but time is your friend. The further you get away from the event the more you learn how to handle the suffering and pain.”
FIND OR GET YOUR “STOKE” BACK
For me, that was surfing.
“Surfing was my great passion, my great love. Surfers have an expression for it, it’s also related to light (Ner Tamid). It’s called ‘stoke’. It’s like fire, the internal fire that we all have. My stoke had gone out. I felt I had no more stoke left. The fire had gone out. I had no desire to surf.”
I went to an all Jewish school. My best friend since elementary school kept phoning me every day saying, ‘Shaun, I wanna take you surfing!’ I kept saying ‘no’. ‘I can’t go surfing, not interested’. After some time had passed, I relented.
GETTING MY “STOKE” BACK
On the east coast of South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the sun rises in the ocean. It is a blood-red African sun that comes out of the water and looks like the sun is just boiling out and turns everything red with steam coming off the water. It is very surreal. It is a spiritual connection. You feel so connected to God at a deep emotional level and so I paddled out into the water toward this beautiful sun thinking about my beautiful son and the words my beautiful son had written, “The light shines ahead”, I was crying. But what happened was, as I went through the waves the sea just washed my tears away both literally and metaphorically. It was such a cleansing feeling. I paddled out towards the sun, swung around, and caught my first ride. I could feel that Matthew was so close to me and that God was so close to me, too. After several waves, I started feeling more at peace with the world. I paddled up to my friend to ask him the name of this spot. As you know, surfers have great names for waves they ride. –Mavericks, banzai pipeline, trestles, restaurants, Cloudbreak, Bay Street. I said what’s the name of this break? He said “Sunrise”. It meant so much to me.”
LASTLY, HELP OTHERS
“Do something to help others. Because in the process of giving to others there is healing. On a deep level, whatever that giving is, being a mentor, teaching someone something, getting involved with a nonprofit. Doing something for someone else with no expectations– just giving. That was an amazing healing process for me.”
Q: Did you get your ideas and philosophy from Judaism or are these your own ideas?
After a long pause and big smile, Shaun looked right at me and said – “I got everything from Judaism.” (laughter)
“Everything came from my past, from who I am, from nurturing from my parents. It did not come from being knowledgeable about Gemara orTalmud, but I think beyond being knowledgeable in Torah there is another connectivity we have as Jews. We have this amazing power of hope and love for learning and a spirit of peace.”
“I believe hope and prayer are what binds us together as Jews. As a Jewish surfer – people still laugh when they hear I’m Jewish – yes – I always believed in the power of prayer, and I always had hope.”
“I prayed because I needed God, and because I felt humbled by the power of God, who was there for me, in life and death situations.”
“We live in turbulent times to be sure, and every one of us lives in a challenging sea, and our attitude towards those challenges defines who we are, and how we live our lives. I believe our attitude is the light that shines from our souls.”
As a Jew I choose positive.
As a Jew I choose optimism.
As a Jew I choose light.
As a Jew I choose hope.
“It is a simple choice. It is a choice to be made by everyone in this world, and this choice can change us, and change our lives, and change the world.”
SHAUN’S BRACHA FOR THE COMING YEAR
“There are two lines from my surfer’s code that really speak to where we are as a nation, to where we are in the world right now. I feel this is a good message for Rosh Hashanah.”
1. We are all connected by the same ocean
“I realize that all surfers (Jews) are joined by one ocean.” This is a simple statement about unity and tolerance about connectivity. We have been so separated by this pandemic.”
Through the separation has come stress anxiety and despair. To reduce this is to connect with others. For example, friends of mine who I haven’t spoken to in six months or a year and they just call me up to say ‘hey how’s it going’. Just having that connectivity and knowledge that we are all part of the same ocean. This is the same way that every Jew is connected to another through learning and prayer.”
2. I will always paddle back out
“This part of my code is a message of hope, resilience, and perseverance. Those words are written in the context of surfing and having a bad wipeout– getting crushed down by a wave.”
“We have all been crushed down by the Covid crisis and all the challenges that it has caused. We all at one time or another get ‘hit by a wave’. But no matter what, having the hope and will to paddle back out can we catch that next wave and keep going.”
“The New Year should bring us hope for a better year, to be better people, and to help others become better Jews.”
Below is the cover to Shaun’s book about his CODE Th Power Of “I WILL” –
Click the book cover to order now