Judaism helps surfer swim towards the light
Shaun Tomson may have been an award-winning surfer, but when his son died suddenly in 2006, he felt like he was drowning. His Jewish identity became his life raft. Now, Tomson inspires thousands around the globe, from corporate chief executives to schoolchildren, to live life according to their own code, ensuring that they always “paddle back out” and know that there will always be “another wave”, even in the face of devastating loss.
“For my Barmitzvah present, my father took me on a surfing trip to Hawaii,” says Shaun. “That was a formative moment. It was a total representation of what a Barmitzvah is. Here I was, a young boy, paddling out in 25-foot (7.6m) surf. I came back to South Africa changed.”
Shaun went on to be listed among the top 10 surfers of the century, and was the 1977 World Surfing Champion. He won 19 major professional surf events, and has been listed as one of the 10 greatest surfers of all time. During his career, he was both the youngest and oldest surfer to win a pro event, and is considered to be one of the architects of professional surfing. He was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
“We lived across the road from the beach in Durban, so swimming was always part of our lives and surfing was a natural evolution of that,” he says. “My father was a swimming champion, but that dream ended when he was badly attacked by a shark 100m offshore in the same waves where he taught me to swim and surf. But he never lost his love of the ocean.
“Both parents taught me resilience. My mom grew up in Malta, surviving 3 600 bombing raids during World War II. It remains the most heavily bombed place in history. She was eventually evacuated to South Africa. And my dad fought the Nazis.”
That resilience was severely tested when Shaun’s own child, Mathew, died suddenly at the age of 15. “I wanted to sink to the depths. But as my mother always said, ‘G-d is like a good neighbour, you knock on his door, and he’s always there.’” And so it was his Jewish roots that Shaun turned to.
Though Shaun and his family had emigrated to the United States, Mathew was visiting South Africa for a semester where he was told about the “choking game” where players get a brief high from cutting off their own air supply. For some reason, it went wrong with Mathew.
“Teenage boys are renowned for making bad choices,” says Shaun. Male teenagers are more likely to die than female teenagers every single year of age from 12 to 19 years. Now, he’s working to turn those statistics around by helping teens understand that they always have a choice.
Two hours before the tragedy, Mathew told his father about an essay he had written on tube riding – Shaun’s area of expertise of riding inside the wave tunnel. Mathew wrote that when you’re riding a wave like that, “the light shines ahead”.
“When he died, I started going back to my old shul,” says Shaun. “I looked at the ner tamid [everlasting light] above the ark that held the Torah I read from on my Barmitzvah, and it gave me hope. Judaism is about hope and light. Faith is there in the darkest hour. That’s how I found a way forward to a new life.”
To return to life, Shaun also had to return to surfing. “I had lost my ‘stoke’ – my joy of living. A friend insisted on taking me surfing in Durban North. It was a break I had never surfed before. The sun’s rising, boiling up out of the ocean, and the waves are washing away my tears. G-d is washing away my tears. I can feel Mathew is with me. I catch my first wave, and the world starts to get back into balance. The name of the break was ‘Sunrise’.”
“How could I even think of experiencing happiness or joy again?” he remembers wondering. “But we all have a choice to paddle out and move towards the light. I’m fascinated by choice.” He went on to do a Master of Science in Leadership at Northeastern University, and shares his academically-tested Code Leadership Method around the world.
“I now speak to hundreds of people about our personal power: writing 12 lines of our own code. Each line must start with the words, ‘I will’. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife, providing tools for every situation. I’ve worked with people all over, including post-traumatic stress disorder survivors in Israel,” he says. “Our own words transform us. The code is open-source – anyone can access it. It’s also an equaliser. The CEO’s code is no more important than that of the intern.”
He and his wife, Carla, also adopted a son, who is now learning for his Barmitzvah. “When we were thinking of a name, we decided on Luke. Only afterwards did we find out that it means ‘light’.”
As someone who has survived the unthinkable, he says, “All of us suffer loss. What I’ve discovered is that there are steps you can take to move forward. The first is unconditional acceptance of the loss. Then, one needs to forgive – yourself, your lost loved one, or anyone associated with the loss.
“Then, when you’re ready, you need to give back in some way, to uplift your own heart. You need to get involved in something inspiring that memorialises the person. Then, it’s vital to get into nature, to see how we’re part of a bigger picture. Connectivity is super important – with your faith, with the people you love. And be open to help, including professional help. Be vulnerable. Time is your friend. The sun will rise tomorrow. That’s what our faith represents.”
With their bright orange and yellow covers, his books all allude to light. His latest book, the Surfer and the Sage: a Guide to Survive and Ride Life’s Waves, written with theologian Noah benShea, even has 18 chapters to coincide with chai (life).
Shaun, who was recently featured in a documentary about antisemitism in surfing, wants Jews to put their divisions aside. “As my Hebrew teacher, Morris Zimmerman, used to say, to the outside world, you’re a Jew, no matter which denomination you come from.”
The documentary, Waves Apart, by Josh Greene, ends on a hopeful note that aligns with Shaun’s outlook. The last scene features a group of Jewish surfers at a beach, reciting the Shema in the water before hitting the waves as the sun begins to set. In the last shot, the group sits down to a Shabbat meal on the beach.
“Looking for the light as opposed to looking for the darkness,” says Shaun. “That’s what Judaism is all about.”