Having a blast on the beach

In addition to being one of the lifeguards at the Kiryat Sanz beach, Erez Hazan is a ba'al tokea who blows shofar in his synagogue on Rosh Hashana.

erez hazan 88 224 (photo credit: Shira Leibowitz Schmidt)
erez hazan 88 224
(photo credit: Shira Leibowitz Schmidt)
You just opened a strawberry yogurt to go with your breakfast consisting of a Muenster cheese sandwich and bamboo shoots after a rigorous early morning swim, and you're relaxing on the beach at Netanya. You are suddenly startled and confused to hear several shofar blasts. But the other bathers don't seem surprised, though they do turn pensive. Some stop swimming and seem to ruminate. A frightened three-year-old clings to his mother. The ram's horn continues - tekia, shevarim-terua, tekia. Long and short blasts. You aren't on an ordinary beach. This is the strip of ocean abutting the hassidic enclave of Kiryat Sanz. The sandwich which you had on the sands of Sanz was interrupted by the daily morning shofar blowing of Erez Hazan. In addition to being one of the lifeguards stationed there, Hazan is a ba'al tokea who blows shofar in his synagogue on Rosh Hashana. (By coincidence, his last name means 'cantor' and cantors often double as shofar blowers.) He has taken upon himself to blow shofar daily during his morning break from lifeguard duty in the Hebrew month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashana. It is a custom from the second day of Elul until the 28th to end morning prayers with short blasts of shofar. On Sabbaths, the shofar is not blown. Also the last day of Elul the shofar is not sounded to differentiate between its tekiot which derive from rabbinic custom, and the Rosh Hashana blowing which is biblically mandated. Kiryat Sanz is an unusual place for other reasons. The founder, the Holocaust-surviving Rebbe of Klausenberg, built and ran a hospital that serves all (Jews, Arabs, tourists, religious, non-religious) from Hadera to Kfar Saba. The beach has separate swimming hours for men and women, attracting bathers from all over the country. Obviously, this segment of the beach is closed on Shabbat and holidays, though the daily separate swimming hours continue on weekdays through the end of Succot. UNTIL SOME dozen years ago Hazan was living a non-observant lifestyle. His work as a lifeguard enabled him to travel to distant shores. In Australia he came into contact with some Chabad emissaries and began the process of teshuva, slowly taking on more mitzva observance. But the milieu of lifeguards, who spend long stretches of time on long stretches of beaches, can often be spiritually and morally challenging. Hazan thought of giving up his profession. In this he would be adhering to one talmudic approach to repentance, that of repudiation, as articulated in Tractate Sanhedrin and codified by Maimonides. "When are dice-players and gamblers considered to have repented? When they break their dice." That is based on a psychological premise of complete reformation through total repudiation. However, his rabbi advised him not to go that route, but encouraged him to remain a lifeguard. In this way he would use his skills to do something that is the pinnacle of Torah and mitzvot: to literally save lives. This is an alternative approach to teshuva, that of sublimation, epitomized in the talmudic dictum about tikun or setting things aright: "Through the very thing with which you were debased, you can be set right" (Berachot 40a). This is similar to the approach of a number of singers, musicians and athletes who became religious and use their gifts as a vehicle for spiritually enriching others. For example, actors such as Shuli Rand and Uri Zohar were advised to continue to be involved in the media but to use their talent to enhance the lives of their viewers, rather than just to entertain. In his profession, Hazan sees some analogy to the High Holy Days. As Rabbi Eliezer Langer once said, using a baseball metaphor, you don't slide into Rosh Hashana the way a batter slides into home plate. Rosh Hashana begins weeks before with those first shofar sounds in Elul, and we start the process of spiritual stock-taking. Similarly, as dramatic as a saving a drowning swimmer at sea is, it begins much before the actual rescue. Hazan and his fellow lifeguards have years of psychological and physical training, paramedical studies, exams and apprenticeships. HAZAN PRAYS at an early morning service so he can comb the beach before the patrons come - but not as a beachcomber. He checks the tides, charts the undercurrents, puts out the danger flags, spots surprise depressions in the sea bed, notes the wave heights, identifies the wind direction and assesses the dangers. Perched high in the lifeguard "succa" (the quaint Israeli term for the elevated lifeguard station), he takes turns in surveillance with the other three guards, Shlomi Levi, Tuvi Shama and Hagai Edri. The key elements of effective surveillance, he explains, are identifying and nipping problems in the bud, victim recognition (active drowning where the victim struggles or passive drowning with few outer signs), scanning and dividing the area of surveillance with his colleagues. The equipment (life rings, tubes, ropes, buoys, boats and paddles) must be inspected and tested. Similarly, in Elul many people check not only their behavior but their religious appurtenances, such as mezuzot and tefillin, to see they comply with norms. Only during his turn to have a morning break does he blow the shofar and agree to an interview. The shofar in Elul is a mild form of shock therapy. As Rabbi Haim Sabato points out in Ani L'dodi, his book on Elul and the High Holy Days, the trembling reverberations emanating from the shofar are to open our hearts and to awaken them from spiritual slumber. The prophet Amos asked rhetorically, "Is a shofar ever sounded in a city and the people not tremble?" Hazan's wife comes during women's swimming hours with their two-year-old water baby who is on his way to becoming a swimmer. When asked if he too will be a lifeguard, she responds, "Whatever profession he chooses, we hope he will also be a yeshiva student and scholar as well." As the lifeguard who not only blows a whistle, but blows a shofar, Hazan uses the opportunity to wish the beach patrons a shana tova over the public address system. Then he adds a special blessing for all the singles, "May the new year bring you successful shidduchim and may you find a wonderful match such as I have found."