Surf’s up for tourists along Tel Aviv coastline

By Steve K. Walz, Special to the Jewish Light

TEL AVIV – Surfing may not be the first activity tourists think of when they travel to Israel, but with 186 miles of sandy coastline and water virtually free of sharks and seaweed, it is becoming one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.

In addition, increased development along the beachfront, including the addition of piers, has helped conditions become much safer. Today, surfing is not only a year-round sport, but also a booming industry, with locals as well as tourists looking to learn, and amateurs wanting to hone their skills.

Two of the most popular surfing beaches are Banana Beach (a.k.a. Dolphinarium Beach), located opposite some of the city’s most renowned oceanfront hotels, and Palmachim Beach, south of Tel Aviv adjacent to Rishon Lezion. 

Particularly fascinating at both beaches is watching enthusiastic teens paddling their surfboards out to sea  alongside members of the AARP circuit. Age difference aside, all are there to catch a wave, even in mid-January. 

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Tel Aviv owes its growing surfing craze to Texas-born physician Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who traded his stethoscope for a surfboard in the mid-1950s. After two failed marriages, Paskowitz spent a year in Israel, where he would later marry his third wife; they had nine children.

One day during his lengthy surfing sojourn in Tel Aviv, Paskowitz left his surfboard at the Frishman Beach lifeguard tower (opposite the Dan Tel Aviv Hotel), where he engaged a young ex-Israeli sea captain named Shaul Zinner. 

Zinner told Paskowitz that he wanted to ride the Mediterranean waves after watching the movie “Gidget.” The 1959 film, which starred Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson and James Darren, told about a teenager’s initiation into the California surf culture. Paskowitz encouraged his new friend to pick up a board and start riding the swells.

He also inspired Zinner to turn the neophyte Israel Surf Club into a real business. Today, Zinner’s adult sons Bari and Gali run the day-to-day operations of the club as well as surf competitively. The business, which is open year-round, offers private and group surfing, and stand-up paddleboard and sea-kayak lessons to anyone interested in learning. The club also rents equipment, has a surf shop and runs surfing camps. All employees speak English and Hebrew, and several are fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. 

“Most of our clients are tourists and local youngsters,” said Gali Zinner, adding that a two-hour surf lesson costs 200 shekels (about $58 dollars) per person.

During the summer season, young Israel Surf Club instructors can be seen working from sunup to sundown prepping small groups of young English-speaking teens visiting Israel. One group after another emerges from the locker room, dressed smartly in colorful club wetsuits, proudly strutting across the beach with their surfboards as the locals look on. 

“The parents actually come to our office from the nearby hotels and ask us, what can we do for the kids?” Bari Zinner explained. “Even though surfing is considered an extreme sport, we make sure that the kids have fun within a structured setting. Surfing has become a real attraction and, most importantly, the parents rely on us because we treat everyone like family.”

Gali Zinner will admit that he has visited better beach and surfing locales around the world but understands the growing global fascination with Tel Aviv. 

“Our beaches are very safe compared to other places, the sand is quite special because it’s like white powder, people can take a quick dip in the ocean even in January,” he said. “There are great restaurants and pubs along the beachfront promenade. And, yes, we feature some of the most beautiful girls in the world here.” 

Shlomo Cohen, 63, who has been surfing in Tel Aviv since “Bari and Gali were in diapers,” admires what the Zinners have done with the Israel Surf Club. 

“I grew up in Tel Aviv and was one of the original surfers here,” he said. “In fact, I still like to spend five hours a day in the water. 

“I’m an original Israel Surf Club member,” he fondly recalled. “The Zinners have created something special here. Everything they do runs like clockwork. They are professional surfers who run a professional operation. Even after all of these years, I still love hanging around the club because there are good vibes here.” 

Cohen says the only drawback to the growing popularity of surfing here is the crowds. 

“Now, the tourists and locals are like the sand on the beach, with tens of thousands coming and surfing every year,” he said.

In fact, the surfing boom among Israeli youngsters has spawned a new, Hebrew language version of “Gidget” called “Breaking Waves,” which recently debuted on a children’s cable network here. 

Less than 10 miles to the south of Banana Beach, a much quieter nature reserve serves up its share of watery attractions for tourists. Palmachim Beach features beautiful hills of moving sand dunes, as well as high limestone cliffs. According to Dar Bar-Gil, manager of the funky Sunnysurf Club (, “Part of the unique experience at Palmachim is also interacting with the magic of nature. We play an integral role in preserving the turtles that live and breed at Palmachim Beach.” 

Aside from protecting the turtles, Bar-Gil has been instrumental in working with a growing number of Taglit-Birthright Israel groups that have been flocking to the beach. 

“Most of the youngsters are between 17 and 21 years old,” she said. “While it’s true that Israel really isn’t known as a surfing state because its located at the edge of the Mediterranean, learning about the sea is part of an overall experience.”

Sunnysurf also offers group and private lessons as well as summer camps for children as young as age 5.

“It’s much easier to teach kids the love of the sea and how to swim and surf at that age,” Bar-Gil said. 

Prices for surfing lessons at Sunnysurf are similar to those at the Israel Surf Club.

Bari Zinner and Bar-Gil agree while the explosive growth of the surfing culture among Israelis and tourists has been great for business in recent years, the challenge is keeping the thrill of riding the waves a “me vs. sea” experience without creating a surfboard traffic jam along Israel’s beautiful coastline.