Laura Deckelman Remembered on the Waves

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 It was an event she would have photographed herself. On the morning of Saturday, September 19, surfers, neighbors and friends gathered on Beach 73rd Street to remember the late Laura Deckelman. The subject of many of her photos, surfers from across the peninsula remembered her in the way they know best—with a paddle out.

Local surfers, Brian Tunick and Lou Harris, as well as Deckelman’s friend, Tina Schlissel, put out a call to the local surfing community to come together to remember Laura Deckelman, who spent many mornings on the beach, photographing their time on the waves. On May 5, Deckelman died suddenly, just a little more than two years after her beloved husband, Paul, died in 2018.  At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, a large gathering could not be held to honor her, so they chose to do so last Saturday.

Surfers and friends spoke of Deckelman’s character and how her photography brought them together. Harris, founder of Black Surfing Association East Coast Chapter, spoke of how much her photography meant to the surfing community. “I told her, ‘you could make some money out here. Listen, I’ll give you $50.’ She didn’t want money, she just loved taking pictures and she was just a good person. She was our first Black Surfing Association photographer. She was there for every event. Every early event we had, she covered,” Harris said.

Tunick says he also met Deckelman through her photography. “Laura was as much a part of Rockaway as the boardwalk, as the water. She was out every day, no matter the weather, no matter how rainy, how disgusting, she was out capturing, immortalizing us surfing, the things the ocean was doing, the dogs of Rockaway, the people of Rockaway. She did so much work to make the ferry come to Rockaway and make it a regular thing. She just loved this town, loved the people of this town and wanted to make surfing and Rockaway more accessible to all,” he said.

Although not a surfer, Tina Schlissel came out to show support for her dear friend from the shore. “Laura was a photographer and an artist. She painted and took photos of everything and everybody and she was always down here at the crack of dawn, as soon as the sun came up, she was out here,” Schlissel said. “She was such a nice person, very sweet, very caring. We were very good, close friends and I know that she would have loved this. She’d be in the water, not paddling, but wading at the shore, taking pictures.”

No doubt, Laura’s presence could be felt along the beach on Saturday. “I swear, some days I look and I can still see here in her purple shirt, shivering away with her giant camera in hand. Let’s go out there and remember Laura for who she is. I’m sure she and Paul are looking down on this and smiling,” Tunick said.

Right after he spoke, a big gust of wind blew through, as if Laura herself was calling the surfers to the water. With flowers in their mouths or tucked under their arms, the surfers took to the water and paddled out, forming a circle to remember Laura Deckelman. Together, they splashed up the water and threw the flowers into the sea, as spectators on the beach did the same.

Saturday’s ceremony took place on the sabbath and Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Schlissel explained, “Laura would be very happy to get rid of this year, 2020. This is Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of a new year and what better way to say goodbye to this year and move on to a new one.” Due to the holiday, not everyone was able to attend the ceremony, but there will be another opportunity to remember Laura with something else she loved—a ferry ride. On Sunday, October 11, at 9:30 a.m., all are welcome to join for a ferry ride from Rockaway to Manhattan, to remember Laura. Deckelman’s son, David, is expected to attend. This gathering is being organized by Deckelman’s friends, Schlissel, Sandra Schunk and Victoria Barber.

At Saturday’s paddle out, Barber spoke more about Deckelman and why honoring her with a ferry ride will be another perfect tribute. “Laura was very open hearted and kind of a simple person but very giving. She lived in the orthodox community in Bayswater but she had an adventurous spirit and was interested in meeting other people and learning their stories,” Barber said. “She was the number one advocate for keeping the ferry. She gave it a face and a personality, and she really shared her love for it. To her, being on that ferry was freedom.”

Story and Photo 
By Katie McFadden

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