A conversion, a surfboard, and a pilgrimage to Nazareth

Although I’ve been surfing for most of my life, I’ve never done much surf travel. Seizing this opportunity, I extended my trip. My plan was to have three days of vacation and one day of work.

 The surf at Nazaré.  (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The surf at Nazaré.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

A mother from South Africa contacted our beit din (religious court) in the hopes of converting herself and her two children in Israel. This work would not call on my skills as a mohel (one who performs Jewish ritual circumcision) but rather just as a rabbi. Unfortunately, at the time Israel was not allowing tourists to enter. Luckily, the family had a connection with a rabbi in Portugal who had access to a mikveh, a ritual bath needed for conversation. Since all of us could enter Portugal, we planned to meet there in mid-November. It was not only lucky for the family, but also for me because Portugal is one of the best surf destinations in the world.

Although I’ve been surfing for most of my life, I’ve never done much surf travel. Seizing this opportunity, I extended my trip. My plan was to have three days of vacation and one day of work.

When it came to the surf, I had no idea what I was in for. In planning a trip so far in advance its almost a guarantee that the surf will be flat. As with all things related to Mother Nature it’s a total gamble, but at least I had prayer on my side; so I began to pray.

As the date of the trip finally approached, it seemed that my connection with the Almighty might have been stronger than I had anticipated. When I touched down in Lisbon, Portugal, every surf forecast was predicting one of the largest swells of the season to arrive imminently. It was projected to be so big that I began praying for something I never had before: smaller waves.

The surf ended up being epic. Coming from Israel’s sandy bottom beaches to Portugal’s rocky reefs couldn’t have been sweeter. I surfed amazing waves up and down the coast, but the most meaningful part of the trip came at the end.

 People kite surf in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, on December 20, 2021, during heavy winds. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) People kite surf in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, on December 20, 2021, during heavy winds. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

On my last free day, I drove north to Nazaré, a sleepy fishing town which happens to be home to the largest waves known to man. The World Surf League holds an annual big wave contest there when the waves are in the range of 50 feet. That may seem like a massive number, but the underwater canyon just below it’s famous red lighthouse can produce waves much larger than that. The world record for the biggest wave ridden measuring just over 100 feet was claimed by António Laureano this past October.

As I approached the lighthouse I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. The road was blocked off well before the actual structure. As with many pilgrimages, the final leg of the journey had to be done on foot. It felt like it was a leap of faith.

The walls inside the building were littered with surfboards twice my height that had been used to tackle these mountains of water. It’s was an impressive display. The most moving part was the roof of the lighthouse where its possible to see for miles in almost every direction. Even on the relatively calm day I was there, 10 to 15 foot waves pounded the rocks of the beach below. It was a real spectacle.

After surfing for 30 years and only seeing waves like these in magazines and online, I felt like I had arrived. There was only one thing I could think to do at that moment and it wasn’t to get my board out of the car, but to pray. As I finished praying mincha (the afternoon service), I realized I may have been the first person to ever pray mincha in that spot. It was Portugal, but for all I knew there was probably a Chabad House around the corner.

The next morning, I met with the family from South Africa and my two colleagues for the conversion. As with all of our conversions, prior to the immersion the candidates formally accept the commandments. Just before this declaration, the mother of the family mentioned how she had been struggling for 20 years to make this moment a reality.

Portugal proved to be a pilgrimage on many levels. The ability to visit a place I’ve only dreamed of was one of the most meaningful journeys of my life and that journey was made more meaningful by helping this family finally become part of the Jewish people. I’m just sorry it took so long!

The writer, a rabbi based in Efrat, a wedding officiant, and a mohel that performs brit milot (ritual circumcisions) and conversions across the world. He is the founder of Magen HaBrit, an organization protecting brit milah and the children who undergo it.