Near the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, amidst stay-at-home orders and our seemingly never-ending winter weather, I frequently found myself bobbing up and down on a surfboard in the waters off of Edgewater Park, just west of downtown Cleveland. Early May’s unseasonably cold weather was a boon for Cleveland’s surfers. The height of the surf season on the Great Lakes typically coincides with the depths of winter. Freezing temperatures and ice encrusted beards are taken as givens.
However, the storms that battered the area from mid-April until early May led to a near constant run of surfable days on Lake Erie. Whenever possible, I stole away for an hour or two from my position as a rabbi, and made my way to Edgewater Park where I discovered surfing offers a powerful antidote to some of the challenges that confront us in the coronavirus pandemic.
It won’t surprise anyone that there are few places where social distancing is easier than in the waters of Lake Erie on a cold, stormy day. Occasionally, I shared the water with a handful of other surfers, but more often than not I had the beach to myself. However, the benefits of lake surfing in the time of the coronavirus extend beyond the fact that it is an activity easily done in isolation. Since the pandemic began, my mind has often fixated on a number of different concerns. I worry about the physical well-being of my congregants, the way in which the virus will impact our ability to help people, and when I will be able to see my family in New York again.
Alongside these concrete concerns, the pandemic has challenged me in more abstract ways as well. There is an overwhelming vast unknown that lies before all of us. At times I ruminate on the big questions that confront us. When will life go back to normal? Will there be a second wave? Is it safe to bring people back to synagogue?
It is easy to get caught up in the anxiety surrounding all of the uncertainty that lies before us. Surfing has offered me a respite from these concerns. To understand why, you need to know something about surfing on the Great Lakes. The waves of Lake Erie are not picturesque, neatly defined waves that appear in rows, like those that appear in the ocean. Rather, they are small and frequently contorted by the wind. They rise up only to then vanish with frustrating frequency.
An outside observer might look at the lake on a windy day and see only a mass of tumultuous water, something akin to what one might see in a washing machine, but in this mixture, there are singular waves to be found. To catch a wave in the lake requires that one look not at the mass of water as a whole, but instead at each individual peak that rises up from the surface. One must place themselves in just the right position and throw themselves into the singular challenge that a wave presents in the hopes of catching an exhilarating but often shockingly short ride.
At a time when it is easy to feel lost in the face of the immense uncertainty which confronts us, surfing has reminded me that there is much to be said for turning away from the big picture and looking only at the immediate moment which lies before us. Each instant is filled with a unique challenge, but also a unique opportunity – one that we should recognize and seek to hold on to until it disappears beneath us.
Surfing does not offer a solution to the vast problems we face, but for an hour or two when the wind is blowing from just the right direction, it allows me to live one moment at a time.
Rabbi Noah Leavitt is senior rabbi of Oheb Zedek Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Lyndhurst.