Uri Ayalon Reports on Street Retreat in Tel Aviv

From the blog of Uri Ayalon

translated by Ruth Bar-Eden


My father thinks I’m crazy.  That’s nothing new.  Only a crazy person could claim that capitalism is not a directive from heaven; that giving and sharing are man’s basic instincts; and that a life of self-examination, study, and change are better than a life of habit and comfort.

groupOn Yom Kippur I went on a journey in the southern part of Tel-Aviv with no money, no mobile, and no sleeping bag, and with a group of twenty other crazy people (led by Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, may they each live long years for the magic they bring to this world with courage and humility), who gathered for three days of homelessness–by–choice.  What a strange choice: Those with a home, food and money are playing a game of poverty and begging?   Les miserables de-shmates.

Yes, how important it is to let go of privilege once in a while.  How important to let go in general, to reveal the abundance that lies just beyond the mountains of fear.  I already knew that the detritus from our culture of excess feeds different lifestyles, but what I learned about in this journey is the texture of the garbage, walking in it barefoot, being touched by it to the very core.  Smelling it, drinking it, and not running away.

On the first evening I went to get French fries in the restaurants of the Central Bus Station.  There I met Sharon: born in Georgia, formerly of the USSR, studied medicine, and found herself on the streets due to a combination of schizophrenia, drug and alcohol addiction, and a love story that turned into a war.  Her daughter was taken from her by child protective services at the age of four.  Now she’s pregnant again, carrying the child of a Sudanese.  She accompanied us throughout the days with captivating humor and intelligence, taught us the location of the fountain with the best water and where we would find cartons to use as mattresses.

Yasser from Sudan joined us, completely drunk. Shachar is an Ethiopian who hates all whites and therefore feels at home only in Lewinski Park [center of the area occupied by African migrants].  Yael was raped by her brother when she was 12 and then thrown out of her home by her shamefaced family.  On a night tour I saw the prostitutes in the street. Shriveled due to heroin, they looked so old and snuffed out that my heart went out to them and their lost clients.

How does my work, my life’s mission, answer Sharon’s needs, Yasser’s, Yael’s?  My friend Omer, a lawyer, used to ask me this question, emphasizing that his work at least brings about the release from custody of about two Africans on average each week.  And what do I do?  Play at building models?  Hope or believe that thirty people living in peace, truth and trust can change this world?

During this weekend I saw the end of the road: the dead-end of the age of capitalism and the nationalist country.  I am delusional and crazy and naïve and pathetic, but I’m also really curious to understand the logic that transformed southern Tel-Aviv into Little Africa.  What are our social, health and cultural services that brought them here?  What is the resolution to this complex situation other than rebuilding from scratch the entire system—borders, values, social structures?  You who are corrupt, you’ve become abhorrent!  It’s time for a total change.

Together with Sharon, we were the only whites in a radius of miles.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, this most holy and sanctified day, I walked into a neighborhood synagogue in Lewinski Park, which has become a home for me (in fact, going to the fancy Rothschild Boulevard was a real challenge), and in that synagogue, of all places, I again witnessed verbal violence (editor note: an altercation occurred when the cantor arrived 30 minutes after the service started. The man substituting for the cantor yelled at the cantor for coming late. The cantor yelled at the man for starting the service too early. This continued for about 15 minutes.) surrounding rules and formalities between the cantor and the other congregants.  I felt much less welcome there than in the Park’s corner.

On this Yom Kippur I found myself broken, crying, shattered.  And this is one of the gifts I take with me from this journey—not only a renewed faith in the mandate to create a socio-economic model for a new kind of society, a viable alternative to our current drowning one; not only an improved awareness that I can live without the addictions and fears that have previously attached themselves to me; not only the ever-deepening love of the community and the magic it offers (the courage to cross boundaries, together)—I remain with this gift of the broken heart.

I suspend the rage and befriend the pain.  I remain in the place of not-knowing which contains the suffering, pain, and injustice.

And I continue on.

Together with them.


To read a more detailed view of this street retreat, link here.

9 Responses

  1. I hardly leave a response, however i did a few searching and wound up here Street Retreat in Tel
    Aviv by Uri Ayalon | Zen Peacemakers. And I actually do have some questions for you if you don’t
    mind. Is it simply me or does it look as if like some of the responses appear like
    left by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting on other
    social sites, I’d like to keep up with everything
    new you have to post. Would you make a list of all of
    your communal sites like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  2. Dear Uri, yes, also I am deepy touched by your report.(Please excuse my bad English.) But I really miss a political statement! How can one find a solution for this great problem, that Israel attracts so many poor migrants, who look for better conditions to survive. I think, it is most important, that we help these people to find a possibility to survive in their own country! Of course, you have a very good feeling, if you show them empathy and love, and they shall tell their family members at home, that there are really holy people in Israel who welcome the strangers. So other migrants wii follow these good news… Much more important than participating at these retreats is that you engage for helping the poor in their home country. Sarva mangalam. Chrisja

  3. Sharing experience – what a gift! Thanks to you, Uri, and also to you, Holly, for taking me and all of us into your circle of witnessing the world. Dancing on the edge of capitalism, as you did, Uri, is tough indeed! My husband Thomas who was with you in that group tells his own story. I’d love to read or hear the mandala of all the crazy folks’ stories, the big picture… aren’t we all storytellers, writers, artists? Much love from Kathleen

  4. Dear Uri,

    I was so glad to read your story of your street retreat in Tel Aviv. I have never seen a post of a street retreat, other than Bernie’s. It is so important to be able to read about these as they take place all over the world.

    In 2011 I participated in a street retreat in Boston MA. It was me, (female) and three men, one from my sangha, one from anther outside Boston and led by Sensei Jim Daikan Bastien of the Zen Peacemakers Order (MA). Our small Boston street sangha. I don’t profess to be a poet, but I thought I’d send you a poem I wrote after it was over:

    Bearing Witness in Boston
    Holly Aloha Jaynes

    Everyone has their ears plugged
    So they can’t hear me beg.
    Their eyes avert me,
    With a “get a job” look.
    They are eating, buying, smoking,
    I feel humanity does not care.

    Our street sangha prays and meditates
    outside of Boston’s Trinity Church.
    Gate of Sweet Nectar
    Calling out to the hungry hearts.
    Dedicating the merit,
    We sit in silence.

    I bear witness to those
    who live on the streets I walk,
    Eat at their soup kitchens,
    Feel tired and emotionally drained.
    As they must, each day.

    Walking all day,
    Tired, still begging, receiving nothing.
    I sit surrounded buy beauty of
    The Boston Public Gardens.
    Swans glides by, another is nesting,
    A beautiful sunny day.
    The begging cup sits on the ground
    And now I know why.
    I am ignored for the umpteenth time
    When I ask for a dollar,
    No longer holding the cup.

    We agreed to separate
    Yet stay in close proximity,
    As well as meals.
    Lunch at a downtown church
    After a long wait in line.
    Dinner at a Back Bay church,
    Where I know the minister.
    One man in a white dress shirt,
    Another nearby me dozes.
    The man across the table
    Looks like Albert Einstein.
    One woman is yelling at people.
    As we leave, I see an old friend
    From the past.
    He asks me if I am OK,
    And I smile as we walk away.

    We sit in council,
    Dedicate the merit.
    Invocation for the
    Manifestation of the Buddha.
    Supplication for the
    Raising of the Bodi mind.
    Dedicate each closing.

    A very drunk couple lay
    at the Bottom of the stairs
    to a Trinity Church “tower room”.
    She yells at us,
    He invites us to stay.
    We go up the stairs,
    stepping over cigarette butts,
    used needles, trash.
    At the top, a small space
    Where we cold sleep.
    One of us doesn’t feel safe,
    We move on.

    In a downtown alley
    We search for cardboard
    To make beds for the night,
    Not far from where I once lived
    Many years ago.

    Sleepless sleep in a light rain,
    Jim tells us to keep our shoes on.
    Lined up against a building,
    Security lights blink on and off all night.
    A mile walk to breakfast,
    The men in one building.
    I am separated from them
    and not welcomed by the women.

    We pass the man and woman
    from the stairs at Trinity Church
    The night before.
    The man recognizes us,
    Greets us with a big hello.
    Jim graciously says
    “We are sorry if we disturbed you last night”.
    The woman slurs,
    “That’s OK, we’re all disturbed”.

    Walking over the Charles River
    Into Cambridge,
    Listening to Jim talk
    About lineage of Zen.
    Gary talks of Shambhala.
    Rob and I are students of
    Thich Nhat Hanh, his
    Plum Village Tradition.

    As a woman stemming to
    Another woman,
    Raw, threatening.
    Does she even think
    That could be me?
    Bearing witness to myself.
    How do I feel?
    Shame, sadness, anger,
    At times, lonely.
    Whitey Bulger’s arrest
    Plays on TVs in store windows
    over and over.

    Jim struck “payday”
    And equally splits money among us.
    I carefully think about
    How to spend my $4.00.
    I crave bottled water
    And ice cream.
    A little park to take a nap,
    With the sounds of children’s voices
    lull me into a dreamless sleep.
    Simple pleasures.

    Dinner at a Korean Church,
    Music for entertainment!
    “Down by The River,
    Down by the Banks of the River Charles”.
    I chuckle to myself
    As I sing along.
    “Love that dirty water,
    Boston, you’re my home”.

    The meal, another “jackpot”!
    Fresh farm produce,
    Potato salad, meatloaf,
    Pasta, Turkey.
    Boneless and Bar-B-Q chicken.
    Meatballs AND Salmon.
    A man served ice tea,
    and pistachio cookies.
    Not a meal for a vegan.

    Roaming at night I have a keen eye
    For cardboard in back alleys.
    We look like over-sized ducks
    Waddling in the pouring rain,
    Wrapped in plastic
    With cardboard over our heads.
    Seeking shelter in Harvard Square
    With familiar homeless faces.

    No Trespassing.
    $3.00 between us stretching
    Time purchasing slices of pizza,
    Hoping not to get thrown out
    From this sumptuous sidewalk shelter.
    I drift off to the murmur of the guys voices,
    Unconscious of bright lights,
    Partially sticking out into the rain.
    Waking, sore and tired,
    Cockroaches scatter.

    Harvard Commons once again,
    Ironically, by the Irish Famine sculpture.
    We dedicate the merit
    To a homeless man
    Sleeping 50 feet away.
    May he be safe and well.
    May all beings
    Receive their alms today.
    A small part of an alarm clock
    Is our bell sound.
    Singing the Hungry Ghosts,
    We chant, pray and meditate.
    Leaving, I see the
    Homeless man.
    Smiling, I wave to him,
    He waves back and says hello.

    As this wandering sangha still walks,
    I no longer have frustration in my heart.
    My needs were met,
    As I welcomed the unknowing,
    Building community.

    I have appreciation for
    Every minute of my life.
    My practice deepened
    Bearing witness to the streets,
    As well as to myself.
    A time of raw intimacy.
    The gifts of the streets.
    I was not afraid.
    We walked to the service at
    The Church of the Streets.
    I had emptied myself
    To become full.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections and insights. I think after reading this, your father will understand much more… With gratitude, ginni

  6. Dear Uri,

    What a thoughtful, heartfelt, appraisal; not only of your own beingness, but of the larger circle of context in which you have had this and other experiences. Attempt not to loose your clarity of vision paired with an open heart and mind. I agree with Monika, you are a poet, a prose poet, a person who is able to paint a picture with words due to your self- and other- honesty. Thank you so very much for this gift; and to Roshi Glassman for his continuing to provide these type of experiences to people in our world……Barbara

  7. I was really moved by your writing so i forwarded it to all my friends. You are brave may you be well and continue on your journey

  8. Dear Uri,

    if you only knew how close I am feeling to you this morning, reading your lines filled with all your brilliancy of observation, getting close to yourself and the others, letting in all the pain and not allowing this pain to destroy your vision: Of lving a more meaningful life, full of compassion and caring hearts, full of real intelligence! I am thanking you for this present! You are a writer, and I hope that you know that. If not I tell it to you now. Please believe me, a German, 61 year old white woman, teacher for creative writing and poetry-therapist, that I can recognize a poet, a writer. there are more in the world than we know and often they themselves do not know and have other professions. That does not matter. You can be a writer and even not write. It is a way to be in the world, to live your life. But if you would wish to go on writing then please do it and let us know, because this is one of the most beautiful gifts you have for the world, your community. – Your first sentence struck me like a lightning: It could have been mine. My family is also thinking that I am crazy. Why? That is another story. I don’t want to be in the middle of my own resonance to YOU. If you are curious to know why they are thinking of me like that, then please ask me: I will answer to you, Promised. Thank you for this sharing, it is a piece of literature. Monica Jion

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