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A Night of Surf and Soul at LAX

Friday, 5 August, 2016 - 4:03 pm

 A Night of Soul and Surf at LAX*

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

It was expected to be routine drop-off to the airport. But when is a summer’s night trip to LAX ever routine?


We set out early. To the west, a large, round sun glowed egg-yolk orange as it dipped beneath the horizon, while ahead, dark clouds hung low and dirtied the skies, marking the way to LA.


Waze promised a travel time of one hour and four minutes. Sure enough, exactly one hour and three minutes later the airport was in sight, but a long line of stationary cars blocked our entrance. A quick turn-off on a potholed side-road brought us to another airport approach, but we were met again by a line of glaring red hind-lights, moving forward languorously, if at all, like a clock’s hour hand in no rush to get anywhere.


The blockage cleared and traffic began to flow. Air Canada is right at Terminal 2 so we reached the counter in good time. Boarding passes printed, luggage checked in, car parked—all that was left to do now was to wait for Mrs. Gold and her two daughters, who would be accompanying our daughter L. on her trip to overnight camp near Montreal.


The clock read 9:00 pm. No word from the Golds yet, but no worries—another hour and a half still remained till boarding. We looked for a place to sit and found two empty seats for the three of us. As I sat down, the youngish man at the edge of the row grunted. I took it as a hello and responded in kind, pulling out my Likutei Sichos, ready to immerse myself in some Parshah study.


“French Canadian,” I thought to myself, noticing his olive skin and scraggly beard. (The romantic spell of international travel made me ignorantly presumptive.)


“On my way to Israel.”




“I flew in from Oregon today and had to walk here from a different terminal. I’m meeting up with a Birthright group on the 6:15 am flight. I don’t have a ticket yet. Is this the right place?”


“Wow. Yeah, it’s the right place.”


Now he had my attention.


“Are you Jewish?”


“I was raised Jewish. I went to a Jewish school back East. We moved to Oregon five years ago, when I was about fifteen.”


“Raised Jewish? What does that mean?”


“My mother’s Jewish, my father is Italian. But I’ve kind of left it behind.”


“Not the spiritual part – that I never even had. Just the observances, whatever we did of them.”


My book remained unopened and my senses sharpened. In the background I noticed my wife going to stand on line and my daughter sitting beside me, but all else began to fade.


 “So what inspired your trip to Israel?


“To be honest, I’m not sure. It might be a mistake but I’m here already.”


“I’m Zalman, by the way.”




I gave him a hand, and noticed a knotty ponytail behind his lethargic smile. I didn’t envy him his long night ahead on the hard leather seat, burdened by baggage and ambivalence, but I didn’t realize yet just how far he was from his element.


“So… you’re in college?”


“Nope. Dropped out after six months. I live by the beach and surf all day. I have a van with a kitchen and a cot, and the public bathrooms are right there. I’m not afraid of sharks and I’ve even trained myself to be in the water a whole day without a wetsuit.”


“Fascinating. So is that what they call…a beach bum?”


A wide grin. “I guess that what’s I’m doing – beach-bumming…”


 “So what draws you out there every day… Is it the the power of the surf, the quiet, the thrill, the loss of self into the largeness of nature?”


I was truly intrigued now to hear from the inside – is it some deep philosophical force or is it simply a personal choice of pleasure?


“It helps me forget. It keeps me balanced and at peace. Half a day out of the water and I begin to dry up.”


As he spoke, a hint of trauma flitted across his face or cracked in his voice, but it was so small and it disappeared so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to pinpoint it. I couldn’t tell if it was from an ordeal he’d suffered, an existential crisis, or accumulated angst from difficult family dynamics— his parents had divorced, his relationship with his older brother sounded cautious, his Mom is with a boyfriend who likes his own space with little tolerance for an extra boarder, and I didn’t hear whether he had a choice to live with his Dad or he was homeless. His planned surfing trip to Fiji after Israel suggested that it wasn’t the lack of finances that drove him to beach-side residence.


 Something about his story and his full-time dependency  on the sea sounded to me like: “I’m enjoying my life. But really I’m running away from something.”


He didn’t offer that information, it was my own surmise. Mostly, his leisurely grin and casual posture seemed  to convey curious interest in what I might have to share. I decided to stick to safer grounds  and backtrack to his comments on his relationship with Judaism.


I looked at my watch and thought: there are probably only five minutes till the Golds arrive and then we have to head back home. What can I say in five minutes that might inspire Kyle to discover the depth, relevance, and vibrancy of Judaism—and his own inner peace?


A quick communication with my wife, who had advanced on the now expanding line, told me that the Golds were nowhere near the airport. While a faint concern crept into my heart – will my daughter have to travel alone? – I also relished the extra time to spend with this tender soul.


So I talked. With my hands, with my head, with my heart, with my humor. Every so often I stopped to check in with him, Is this too heavy? Are you still good with this? After all, all he had done was say hello but maybe he hadn’t meant to get so involved in discussion? Each time I asked he responded positively, so I continued.


We talked about the meaning of mitzvos.


“Good deeds?”


“ No, commandments by G-d, telling us what he needs from us. Those do include good deeds, mitzvos between human and other humans. But it also includes mitzvos that are pure ritual, interactions between man and G-d, where we don’t see the benefit to others but where we know that we are doing something big. Essentially, all of them are connections that forge and deepen our relationship with Him.”


We talked about the world and its purpose.


“This is the lowest of all worlds, where G-d hides Himself entirely. Can we find Him? It’s up to us to open our eyes and see. Maybe it’s obvious to you, in the endless rolling sea, in the crash of the breakers, in the thrill of gliding along the crest of a wave. But that’s still your choice to see it that way. Others could end up worshiping nature instead. Our job is to make the world a “dwelling place for G-d” – when we do a mitzvah, when we live a conscious life, we reveal Him here. The goal? The time of Moshiach, when only peace will reign, death and evil will cease, and G-d’s presence will  be known to all. But now’s the time to do. We’ll see the full impact then. Pretty soon now.”


We talked about the soul, coming down from its heavenly bliss into the physical body.


“It’s enticed down, because here is where it can accomplish and get really close to G-d by doing the mitzvos. But then all is forgotten. The body’s needs are taken care of, but the soul? Often its neglected. Imagine the poor thing, locked inside, suffocating, begging for some air and nourishment – something holy, spiritual, altruistic, Jewish, anything that looks or smells remotely like a mitzvah.


“I don’t know if you have something going on inside—here I treaded lightly, but resolutely. If it’s trauma it might be a good idea to deal with it through therapy instead of running away. But beyond that, giving your soul a little freedom too can only be a good thing…  It will help you find peace.”


It was already 10 o’clock. A good hour had passed. We had covered other topics as well—Israel and his trip for one, not all of them as weighty as others.


In the meantime, I had interrupted our conversation to take a call from home for a nightly bedtime routine with the other kids. My wife had found two older Chabad girls in Gan Israel sweaters—relatives of relatives!—traveling on the same flight, who took my daughter ahead through security and promised to connect her to the camp representatives. An announcement had already been made for final passengers for the flight, and suddenly I saw my wife, who had been holding a spot at the head of the line, dash out to the curb. I followed suit, grabbed the Golds’ bags, and hustled them in.


The Golds taken care of, I headed back to Kyle to say goodbye. I took out my wallet and looked for a business card to give him but all I had were cards from Kobi at SunSolarUS.


“Hey if you ever feel like it, feel free to contact me. I’m a rabbi, if you haven’t figured it out yet. A Chabad rabbi. You can find me at if you care to continue...Otherwise just consider this a one-time oddball experience on your way to Israel…”


He eyed me with a studied smile. Then I began to pull out a dollar.


 “I can’t give you a card but I can give you a dol…”


His faced got serious and he stopped me quick.


“I don’t want (need?) your…”


I replied just as quick: “It’s not for you, it’s for you to take to Israel and…”


His face lit up as he held out his hand, took the dollar, and finished for me: “I see, you need me to give it there to someone else in need.”




Never mind that I didn’t get to tell him the significance of being a “messenger for a mitzvah” and the divine protection it offers.


Never mind that I really didn’t know if he’d appreciated our discussion or whether I had found the words he needed to hear or whether he was affected by the simple, friendly, human interactions that went on with him and around him that night.


His obvious joy at being part of a good deed – needed to do something to make me happy, to make the recipient happy, to participate in global G-dly change—was more than valuable enough.


He’d gotten the message:


“You’re needed.”




I thought of Kyle as I went downstairs to the snack bar to fuel up for the drive home, hoping he’d eventually find his way there too but unwilling to risk insulting him by bringing him something for free. I thought of him as we drove home, him sitting alone and waiting a whole night under white fluorescent lights, far away from the solace of a white-crested ocean. And I continue to think of him as I write this: How’s he doing today? Was the Divine Providence of our meeting for him to encounter Jewish inspiration and guidance?  Was it a positive step toward him healing some inner wound?  Or was the main point of it really  a message intended for me? It could have been just the Divine joy of two people having a one-time pleasant interaction or studying Torah together.

  I’ll never know the full reason for sure, but truthfully it’s not important to know. What is important is what we need to know and do going forward every day – go forward! Reach out to others, reach out to your inner divine self. We’re needed more than we  can ever imagine.


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