This Yom Kippur I won’t be in synagogue.

The day before the holiday a group of people, invited by Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi, a friend and teacher, and the Zen teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman, gathered in the streets of south Tel-Aviv, in Lewinski Park. We stayed there without phones, money, identification papers or possessions save the clothes we wore.

People dear to me asked if I was crazy: What are you doing this for? Be careful not to catch polio. Are you normal? It’s dangerous out there … I asked myself the same questions, and more. It was called a retreat, a time for practice. What do you practice in the streets?

Thirty years ago, Bernie Glassman decided that teaching Zen in a monastery was not enough. He went out with several of his students to the streets of New York to meet the homeless and bear witness to their lives. Later they developed a project, including a bakery that employed homeless persons and homes where they could live. The project was a big success.

Bernie teaches his students three principles:

1.     Not Knowing: the willingness to leave behind all the ideas you had about a situation and approaching it as an empty vessel.

2.     Bearing Witness: being in the moment, place, or situation as a witness who experiences, feels and absorbs as much as possible on all levels: What is happening in me and around me, what is happening in the interactive space between my surroundings and myself? At some point the question comes up: Is there a difference between me and the other, and who is the other inside me, the parts which I push aside, ignore, refuse to see or relate to, etc.

3.     Loving action, or right action, which arises naturally from bearing witness, from experiencing, feeling and understanding in depth that which is happening. And maybe it does not arise.

Ohad timed this retreat for Yom Kippur because the situation in south Tel-Aviv reminds him of the ritual scapegoat used in this holiday. On this day in the distant past, all the sins of the people of Israel were thrust upon a single goat that would then be sent into the desert, where it would die. That is how our forefathers symbolically got rid of their sins on Yom Kippur. The scapegoats of Israeli society, those who remind us of the sins of not caring, ignoring, and lack of compassion, are around the Central Bus Station of today’s Tel-Aviv. Coincidently or not, most of them are also black.

I arrive with 7 shekels change. Strangely, I’ve been inside the station maybe once or twice in my whole life, and then just for a few minutes. This time, I have time. I feel like a tourist watching how everything is now out of my reach. Coffee costs 7 shekels, a much yearned-for bathroom costs 1, guarded by a terrifying iron gate. Later we find out that there are also free bathrooms, not as clean and more crowded.

I give away my last shekels and join the group gathering outside. A summer afternoon in Tel-Aviv. Hot. Very. We compare what each one has brought along: a warm scarf for the night, a kaffiya. There’s joy at seeing faces of familiar people and at the opportunity to spend time with others I hardly know. Curiosity, excitement, and a sense of adventure …

We leave for Lewinski Park close to the station, walk a bit, and suddenly notice that the great majority of the people in the street are black. Sitting in the opening circle, we are given our instructions, which are to go out in pairs or threes, preferably with people we don’t know, watch and observe everything around us, and come back after a few hours with food for dinner.

I walk together with a lovely young woman and a man, feeling how important a male presence is for my sense of safety. There are mixed feelings. On one hand, there’s a sense of wonderful freedom: no handbag, purse, mobile phone, car key, or anything else that can be lost or taken in a moment. What freedom and lightness! On the other hand, the Lewinski market is tempting with its stalls of fresh and dried fruits, bakeries and cafés, all out of reach. Quickly I discover survival skills.  I take an empty bottle from the plastic recycling container and fill it with water from the water fountain. It’s hot. I search for fruit that may have fallen from the stalls. Is there fresh food in the garbage bins?

Bernie said to ask everyone for a handout instead of trying to figure out ahead of time who will or won’t give. I walk into an electrical appliance store and an employee asks if he can help me. I tell him I will be sleeping in the park tonight; would he give me some money for dinner? He looks doubtfully at me: You don’t look like it. I tell him it’s true, it’s just how things happened and tonight I’m on the street. He walks over to his tzedakka box [charity] and spills out all the money. Wow! 13.80 shekels. He wishes me well; I thank him and wish him a good year.

I continue to ask for money and contributions of food in food stores. Some give; others tell me to come back later, before the store closes. A group of young people in a café moves uncomfortably, but after one of them gives me a few shekels the others join in.  At the end I have over 40 shekels in my pocket. We use some of it to on a half-price pastry and bananas. Some restaurants give us leftovers. When I first ask a man at a fresh fruit stand for something he sends me away and I thank him with a blessing.  Now, on the way back, I say Hello, Happy New Year, and he calls me over and tells me I remind him of his mother-in-law: Come, I’ll give you now whatever you want. I ask for pomegranate juice. He squeezes fresh cold pomegranates and hands me the glass. The juice is cold and fresh; suddenly I feel so wealthy.

On the way back to the park we stop to rest near a furniture store and I ask Rena, an employee, if she’d prepare us a cup of coffee. She agrees. We talk and she laments the changes that have come over the neighborhood, warning the women not to wander in that area after dark.  Later that night, Sharon will take us to that very spot on a guided tour of the nooks and crannies used by the prostitutes, the porn shops and the junkies. For now we move on, passing Neve Sha’anan Street with a second-hand store and a hairdresser who styles complex hairdos for the African women.

Back in the park a great deal of food has been collected. There are lots of people on the grass around us. It is already dark and strobe lights light up the entire space; there are many surveillance cameras and someone says it reminds him of Big Brother. Someone else thinks it’s good that the city council cares enough to try to create a sense of safety.

We invite those sitting nearby to join our meal. Carin and Sharon join our group. We sing a bit with Ohad’s guitar and the music draws more onlookers, some coming close, others peeking from afar. Carin, who looks about 50, my age, talks in fluent English about the park and its denizens, relations with the city agencies, the shelter opened by one of the monasteries and the services it provides to the regulars. She sounds like a neighborhood mother; later she will bring us a few sheets to help us get through the night.

Sharon, in white clothes with a 5-month pregnant belly, giggles once in a while, with or without reason, enjoying the attention. When an African approaches the food by her side she shoves him away rudely, protecting her bag that holds all her possessions. Later that night she tells us she passed all her matriculation tests in a prestigious high school, and when she was 20 her mother sent her to her homeland, Georgia, to get married. On the day of her wedding her groom was killed, leaving her alone and pregnant. She describes bouts of epilepsy, mental illness and roaming the streets. Social services took away her daughter. She’s pregnant again and hopes the father dies; she hates him. Her teeth desperately need treatment.

We get ready to sleep, gathering cartons, nylons, bags and shredded paper which, when shoved into a plastic bag, becomes a pillow. Some of us will sleep in the park. Others are happy to leave the rats behind and spend the night in a different park close by, but not so well lit. We give a rat some food, hoping that during the night it won’t covet someone’s nose, and bundle ourselves up on the cartons, trying to sleep. The light is strong and the place is teeming though it’s past midnight. I fall asleep pretty quickly, blessed with the presence of my loved one who has also joined the retreat and now holds me, warming my back. It gets cold. The kaffiya protects my body and head from the rats and cockroaches while the green postal bag, acting as a blanket, warms me quite well.

Shortly after sunrise I wake up. The park is now quiet and the weather pleasant; the summer heat won’t come till later. Around me figures lie on a sea of cartons, some covered by Carin’s sheets, others by bags or more cartons.

Writing this now, it seems surreal. In that moment that morning it seems perfectly normal. I’m here, focusing on basic existence needs. I walk over to the Central Bus Station to find a free bathroom. A moment’s apprehension when I see the dark and secluded stairwell, then I go in. There’s water and even toilet paper. I put some in my pocket just in case, leave through a different exit and sit on a bench. The station is waking up. There are many for whom this is a daily routine, with nowhere to make coffee or tea. Women are waiting in the station to get to cleaning work, sitting quietly and patiently.

Returning to the park, I see men waiting for vans. Rifat, a young Sudanese, explains that some of them work in restaurants and shops cleaning, washing dishes or stocking goods, and their employers arrange for them to be driven to and from work. Some look around for any random job. They sit quietly and wait, talking, a long line of them on the benches and the sidewalk. Rifat just returned from a night shift in a restaurant open till morning, happy that he has a job. He came to Israel through Egypt, paying $800 to Bedouins to cross the border. They kept him locked in a closed van for days, without food or water, and threatened to kill him if his family didn’t pay ransom. He begged, and for some reason they let him go. Others have not been so lucky. Some have died from heat stroke and dehydration, others injured or killed by the Bedouins.

I watch and listen. Listen inwards too. What happens inside when I hear these stories, see these sights, this human pain? My body still aches a bit from having slept on the carton, the sun is still pleasant. I choose to let go of the self-protecting cringing in my stomach that can create a barrier, and become a quiet, listening presence. There is a deep and profound sorrow for this suffering, for the pain that we inflict on others. Rifat is a young man about the same age as Tamar, my daughter. When he speaks, for a few moments I am him. I think of Tamar and the women who have come here from Africa, many of whom, Rifat says, have been raped on the way. My heart breaks.

groupMorning circle. There are leftovers from last night’s meal. A soldier from the IDF radio station is looking for a story. He met us last night and returns this morning, asking if he can interview and record some of us. Last night he asked me if he should change out of his military uniform, but now he says that’s illegal so he kept it on.  In the circle he expresses his respect for what we are doing but also says that at as a soldier he may not share his personal opinions. I look at the soldier inside me who refrains from getting involved or expressing an opinion that is forbidden by some institution of which I am a part. The kibbutz, or perhaps its comfort or conformity—different names for fear and indifference—often run my life. More cringing in the stomach, more sorrow.

We go again to the streets. The instructions this time: just meander. There’s a sense of adventure, no given purpose. Again, there’s a sense that this is an exotic, new city, and a sense of freedom.  Time becomes different, calm; you can just sit and talk. In the streets you can feel the approach of Yom Kippur.  Stores close early; there’s the bustle of holiday eve.

This area is more white. We sit at the door of Moshe’s store (after again asking for and receiving coffee) and talk about Torah. When Moshe, of Persian descent wearing a skullcap on his head, hears what we’re doing here he explains that the problems of the Africans can’t be resolved until the Messiah comes. According to Rashi the commentator, when Noah was intoxicated, his son Ham (ancestor of the African nation) “saw his father naked,” apparently raped him, and was then cursed to be his brothers’ slave forever. However, Moshe doesn’t argue against helping the Africans who are here.

Here’s the issue of the stranger, turning the other into the stranger being punished for an age-old sin. I don’t know. The ever-growing experience of not-knowing, the opportunity to see everything from so many different perspectives, the awareness that nothing really exists on its own but only through the eyes of the beholder. This abstraction of a human being creates so much suffering and pain. Was this how infinity felt when it was reduced and brought into this world?

Further along the way we find a young tree broken in its middle and bent to the ground. Allyn, from Germany, feels pain for the life that ended here as well. She leads us in prayer and a blessing for the tree and all who have been broken.

Near the sea we find a homeless shelter operated by Gagon (Rooftop). Boris, a Russian living there on and off for a year and a half, tells us of his daily routine. There are strict rules you must abide by: No drugs or alcohol, respect for others, lights-out, etc.  One gets a bed, a meal, clothes, laundry and a shower. He openly shares with us his drinking problem, which gets bad when he is stressed, and then he has to leave the shelter until the next time he can return. Good people on the journey. The place looks clean, organized and quiet—it’s lunch time now.

We go down to the sea where a Moslem family is bathing. Two women in black dresses play in the water with a few small children splashing each other. Nearby someone in a white bikini is sunbathing. It’s very hot. I can see the terrace of the restaurant Monterey. On other days, I am on that terrace. Today, for the price of one appetizer I could get so many other things.

The sea is free to all. Immersion before Yom Kippur arouses a heartfelt prayer in me to connect with all those who are far-flung and remote, within and without. Afterwards I use the handheld beach shower. Wow, to be clean! What fun.

It’s late afternoon and the hunger is getting to me. Stores continue to close. One small restaurant is cleaning up and the chairs are piled high. We ask if there’s any food left and receive fresh warm burekas [pastries]. Tasty! Once again, the realization that there is food, though much less choice of what to eat and when. We take what is given us. A few more places give food and we’re on our way to eat the meal before the fast.

There’s a nice variety when we sit in the park around the food that’s been collected.  There’s also a group called Sheaves of Israel, which brings food to the people in the park every Sabbath and holiday eve. This time the volunteers (from a Christian church nearby) bring the food earlier than usual because of Yom Kippur. They spread a table with very large quantities of different cooked foods and offer anyone a plate, spoon, and cold water, and they even pack the food to take home or give to others. We are eating and admiring the volunteer work and large amounts of food when Carin, whom we met yesterday, comes straight up to the table, spits in the food and curses the volunteers. She seems crazy, spaced out and angry. Spitting and cursing, she explains that people who ate this food got sick and that this group is actually a money-laundering front. One of the volunteers tries to move her away and they nearly come to blows. I am shocked to see the change that’s come over her and realize that one has to be here a long time to really understand what is happening and figure out how to help. Our glimpse is just a tiny drop.

The start of Yom Kippur finds me on the grass with friends and Ohad playing guitar for three women from the Congo, who clap to the rhythm. We discover that there is a synagogue next to the park congregated by people from the Caucasus Mountains and some of us go there for Kol Nidre. The women’s section is completely empty; it’s hot inside. The caretaker, who earlier threw out one of us who doesn’t speak Hebrew, returns our greetings of Gmar Hatima Tova and turns on the air conditioner. I belong to the right color, the right language; my clothes haven’t gotten really dirty yet so I look okay. I can also use their bathrooms.

Later in the park we sing some songs and Ohad leads us in fervent prayer. Most of us move our cartons over to a playground nearby and sleep there. Sharon joins us. I’m exhausted and fall asleep.

The morning light starts early. Avi and I and a friend, a German who arrived just to participate in this retreat, go off to the streets of Tel-Aviv. It’s Yom Kippur and everything is very quiet. There is no bustle of motorbikes, just a few people outside.  Once again a synagogue on our way lets us use the bathrooms. Someone says this is the meaning of Jewish services: running water and even scented soap, and paper for our hands and faces.

The border between the black and white areas stands out. When we return to the park we find a large number of Ethiopians and Eritreans sitting silently on the benches and the grass in one corner. On another bench adjacent to a synagogue wall is a line of men and some women crying loudly. It seems this is a mourners’ gathering honoring three people who died in their countries of origin. They leave after several hours.

Around us, another morning. People who slept on the benches and inside the slides of the jungle gym wash their faces in the fountain. I think about a toothbrush. Sitting on a bench, Sharon asks if someone would play an Eric Clapton tune she loves. My heart swells when I see her singing with Avi quietly accompanying her on the guitar.

In our late-morning gathering we spread out on the grass and have heart-to-heart talks with friends. I feel my heart warm with gratitude for the people with whom I have had the privilege to share these days and a growing curiosity to know them better. We are all part of this web.

bernie-caneAt the end of the afternoon we leave the park and walk towards the sea, stopping to pray and sing in a park in Neve Tzedek. We join one of our members in an emotional Kaddish for his father who passed away and meet a young girl from London who sings with a clear voice and joins us on our way to the sea. Bernie, who throughout the retreat amazes me with his quiet and humble manner, sits on a bench. His knee hurts. At some point Ohad says to him gently, Bernie, you are sitting in the sun.  Bernie looks at him with some surprise and says: Yes, it really is very hot, and moves. I see this Zen teacher sitting right near me, and inside I bow.

We stop on the grass near the Carmel market. Avi and I walk away from the group and enter the abandoned market. Our eyes are by now accustomed to looking for cartons, fruits that might have been left behind, and a comfortable corner in which to sit. We settle down at the other end of the market. Near us are two people with a plastic bottle of wine discussing their preference for vodka, with or without orange juice. A few feet away an Asian family shares lunch. When they leave I notice there are many children with bicycles in the street and on the sidewalk. When we get up, an 8 or 9 year-old boy on a bike grabs us and begs us for help, pointing to a few Filipino children on bicycles who, he says, won’t let him ride home. I rush in to find out what is happening and ask them to let the child pass. The child, under my own protection, curses the Filipino children and their mothers, and they curse back.

In the final circle on the grass each one says what touched her or him. Assif names Ohad.  Shachar is an Ethiopian who served in the army, missed the last bus home and stayed with us in the park. Last night he said he hated all of us: the Israelis, the prejudice, the lack of caring. Avner spoke with him for a long time and something between them clicked.  Shachar slept next to Avner and stayed with us the whole day.  Now in the circle we listen as Avner translates for him.

We go to the Dolphin beach for the end. The sun opposite us is orange and large and already touching the water. Yael and I open the palms of our hands and run to the sea crying out, Open for us the Gate at the time of its closing, for the day is ending [end of the Yom Kippur liturgy]. For us, for all of us, regardless of color, religion, gender and origin. The sun sets.

In the sea we remove our clothes and again immerse ourselves in water to end this day.  We look up and see stars, signifying the end of Yom Kippur. I think of the home that awaits me and of those who will remain in Lewinski Park tonight.

And what now? Don’t know. All these sights and sensations are still fresh. The heart is raw.

Gratitude for the shower, running water, the toothbrush, flicking on the kettle for coffee whenever I want, choosing what I eat. Being safe under a roof. Gratitude for so many things, including the opportunity to go out on the streets, get out of my self and encounter … The words of the prayer book still ring in my mind: Pray for the poor so that he will be covered. Before God he will pour out his heart. God, listen to my prayer and may my supplications reach You. Do not hide Your face from me on this terrible day.

May we all be blessed with a good year of life and peace. Amen.

3 Responses

  1. Deep gratitude for taking this loving action, Lilach, writing this moving piece, bringing us along, as Monika said, to bear witness to the experience of homelessness in Tel Aviv. I look forward to sharing your heartfelt words with friends in the U.S. May your retreat experience ripple out into the world as well as deeper and deeper into your own heart, and be of benefit to all beings. With love and appreciation, Anita

    1. Dear Lilach,
      Thank you for the Tel Aviv retreat story.

      About 3 years ago I went on a street retreat with Genro from the Zen Peacemakers in N.Y. City. We had to raise a mala which for me was one of the hardest things to do. Once I got used to asking it seemed like a natural flow of generousity appeared from friends, family and strangers. During the retreat we learned how to beg, so humbling, some of us worried we would be recognized by business associates; and sure enough; one of the men with us saw a former bank colleague and we laughed. Wonderful people from all walks of life became friends, we walked til our legs gave in, slept in cardboard boxes in an alleyway in Chinatown; then it rained and we got soaked and looked again for another place to rest, we went to the Bowery and listened to the preachers before breakfast was served. Like you, we had no money on us, no clean clothes and we had to prepare 5 days before by not washing our hair.

      I learned what it feels like to be happily alive,
      very grateful for humanity and a faucet of running water.

  2. My dear Lilach, it was all beauty and truth how you wrote about your journey through this Yom-Kippur-Street-Retreat. You took us at you hand and guided us through everything you have witnessed, experienced,and it was as if I had been allowed to be with you. I could smell what you smelt, the fruit, the coffee, the pastry, the perfume of heat and the people around, I good see the nightly scenery with and without sheets and the fear of rats, I could listen to Ohad’s guitar, your singing, and I could follow your inner movements, the beats of your heart. Very moved, I thank you for sharing your heartmind, and for the practice of you and your friends on Yom Kippur! May the blessings of your experiences and these words wirtten spread healthfully into every direction, now! Monika Jion

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