Interview of Bernie by Alessandra Kormann journalist of Folha de S.Paulo
Alessandra: I read in your website that you found your way into Zen practice after reading the book World’s Religions, when you were studying to be an Aeronautical Engineer. But how was your life before that? Did you always want to change the world (or at least try to make it better)?
Bernie: I was born into a Jewish Socialist environment and so social action was in my bones since childhood. At the age of 12 years, I began an intensive search in World Literature regarding the existence of God. I have never felt I want to change the world. I am attracted to situations that I don’t understand or that give me fear. I respond to the ingredients I see before me and make the best meal I can out of them.
Alessandra: What was your family like? Have your upbringing influenced your social engagement in any way?
Bernie: I was born into a Jewish Socialist environment and so social action was in my bones since childhood. My mother died when I was 7 years old. My father was not involved in social engagement, but all my aunts and uncles on both sides were heavily engaged and thus I feel I was definitely influenced in social engagement by them.
Alessandra: How did the idea of creating a bakery to employ Yonkers’ homeless came to you? Did you have any previous experience with bakery or cooking before? Why to make cakes instead of bolts, bricks or clothes?
Bernie: I wanted to create a livelihood training space for zen students, I call it work-practice. I wanted a livelihood that didn’t require experience, a place where we could train people from scratch. I also wanted our zen center to have a livelihood and not only depend on donations. I made a list of criteria that the livelihood should have. The list included: can accept workers with no experience, has the potential to support the zen center, produces high quality products, has the potential to be a socially responsible business. We had no previous experience with a bakery before but several of our zen students were wonderful cooks and bakers. There also was a bakery owned by a sister zen group in San Francisco that was willing to train us.
Alessandra: What does a person or a company need in order to start a business like this? Since it’s not all about charity, but also a profitable business, what kind of previous experience one must have to succeed?
Bernie: In my opinion, you first need sufficient start-up capital. You can recruit people with the experience that is needed. You also need a champion of the vision. Someone who will keep going thru the ups and downs since, in my opinion, there will always be ups and downs.
Alessandra: In your opinion, who must take the lead in fighting poverty, especially in underdeveloped countries: governments, NGOs or even individuals or companies interested in social responsibility?
Bernie: In my opinion, each one of us must take the lead. It is too easy to blame others.
Alessandra: What do you think about Bolsa-Família, a Brazilian social welfare program, in which poor families receive money from the government in order to keep their children in school and have them vaccinated?
Bernie: I am not familiar with it, so I can’t comment on it. I will read about it on the web.
Alessandra: Do you believe that one day extreme poverty will be wiped out from the world?
Bernie: No, I don’t believe in Utopias.
Alessandra: Regarding to the street retreats, what do you think is the best gain to the participants? Have you known many people which changed their lives significantly after an experience such as this one? What kind of learning one can take from a street retreat?
Bernie: The main change I have noticed is that, once you have done a street retreat, you can no longer look down at other people. Your level of dignity for all beings is greatly increased. You also gain an experience of living in the moment.
Alessandra: What is the purpose of the concentration camp retreats, besides bearing witness and keeping these horrible memories alive? What kind of people join these retreats and why? What do you feel when meditating in Auschwitz?
Bernie: There is the experience remembering those that die or are dealt with in horrible ways and of the trauma that those who inflict those horrible ways live and die with. There is also the experience of being with and sharing the feelings and thoughts of many different peoples and cultures. The participants of the retreats (by design) include survivers, relatives of survivers, relatives of perputraters, folks from many cultures, i.e., jews, gypseys, gays, many countires (Germany, Poland, USA, Israel, Palestine, Switzerland, Belguim, Netherlands, Brazil, etc. While meditating one feels the prescence of many souls nurturing us.
Alessandra: I’d like to understand better the way Greyston Mandala works. Are there many companies that are partners in your social programs? May any company join the network around the world? Or do you help other institutions that are interested in following your example?
Bernie: At present there are many companies within the Greyston Mandala in Yonkers, e.g., housing development, bakery, AIDS health center, childcare, youth care, family care. These companies partner with other agencies that have specific resources such as architects, health agencies, therepy agencies, construction companies, etc. We are also exploring the construction of a large scale bakery facility in the poorest village (Arab) in Israel to assist them in their economic development (75% unemployment.)