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‘Being seen for who you are is such a deep need for all of us’

  • Bernie Glassman, the spiritual director of Zen Peacemakers, left, and Rami Efal. Glassman began Zen Peacemakers more than two decades ago. Submitted photo

  • Rami Efal sketches children during a stay in Rwanda. Submitted photo

  • Rami Efal, a Northampton resident, has traveled to Bosnia, Auschwitz, the Black Hills of South Dakota and the streets of New York to “bear witness.” Submitted photo

  • Rami Efal. Submitted photo

  • Rami Efal shares a moment with children during a stay in Rwanda. Submitted photo

  • Rami Efal has a conversation with a child during a “plunge” with refugees in Greece. Submitted photo



The Recorder
Friday, February 17, 2017

With a crayon between his fingers and a small crowd of young, wonder-filled faces gathered around him, Israeli native Rami Efal has captured the attention of a group of young Muslim refugees at the port of Piraeus in Greece.

In the midst of their excruciating journey last April, the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis are drawn to the fellow, bespectacled immigrant. One by one, Efal sketches a portrait of each weary, apprehensive face, capturing the child’s inner joy masked by the anxiety and stress of conditions at this crowded camp and the their long ordeal.

It’s a quick work of art, as Efal has done again and again around the world, as part of his own journey. Yet these refugees are in no hurry, as this week-long “plunge” last spring by Zen Peacemakers volunteers from around the world has made clear.

Again for Efal, the new executive director of Montague-based Zen Peacemakers, this member-led “Not Knowing Pilgrimage to Greece” is an opportunity — as the founder of the Buddhist organization, Bernie Glassman, first envisioned — to get meditators “off the cushion” and toward the Zen order’s three tenets: “not knowing, bearing witness and taking action.”

“When you experience the world as your cushion, it’s a big cushion,” says Efal, the Northampton resident who’s traveled to Bosnia, Auschwitz, the Black Hills of South Dakota and the streets of New York to “bear witness.”

Starting out as an student whose dream was to become an artist in New York, Efal arrived from Israel in August of 2002 at 24 for an exchange semester at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He remembers himself as “an adamant atheist with very little patience for anything spiritual.”

“I was very rational, very curious and very depressed,” Efal said.

A veteran of the Israeli army arriving one year after the Sept. 11 attacks and in the midst of the Second Intifada, he recalls, “It was also the first time I was taken out of the Israel bubble, and I wasn’t aware of how much the political climate and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle was weighing on me. It was the first time I experienced myself without it, and the creativity that came out. It was like I met a new person.”

Efal decided to finish his degree at the New York school, where his thesis — a graphic novel set in 18th century Japan — drew him to read about meditation and finally to immerse himself for two years at Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, N.Y. This was followed by two years of living and practicing Zen Buddhism at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Feelings of isolation in his work — in which he’d also felt the first deep contemplative moments while immersed in creation of illustrations, portraits, landscapes — gave way to connections with a 2,500-year-old Zen tradition. It was at the temple in 2009 that he was introduced to Glassman through his book, “Bearing Witness.”

Not knowing

The experience of perceiving the world afresh, without judgment, when he left the monastery in 2013, profoundly opened his mind. Efal signed up for that fall’s Zen Peacemakers’ retreat at Auschwitz that he’d learned about in Glassman’s book.

“When I left the monastery, with the experience of not knowing, I kind of re-entered the world, and … how do you know how to respond? It’s all one, it’s all interdependent. So who’s responding to whom? We’re only separated by our minds. Where’s the reality in this?”

The weeklong Auschwitz retreats, begun in 1996, offered “a quality of aliveness” for the dozens of participants who’d gathered from around the world each year. The retreats offer meditation, reflection and a unique experience of being on the 52-acre death camp where more than 1 million had been murdered between 1940 and 1945.

After four retreats, Efal reflects, “When I go to Auschwitz, it really feels like home, like I have all these different homes. What is home? It’s a place where I feel intimate, with myself, and with others.”

After taking part in Leverett peace activist Paula Green’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt. the following summer, Efal phoned Glassman and volunteered.

“I want to minister the world, and I don’t know how to do that with that mind of not knowing,” Efal told Glassman.

They returned to Auschwitz in the fall of 2014, which Efal would go on to do again in 2015 and 2016, and he became Glassman’s assistant. Glassman, who at 78 is recovering from a stroke, remains the spiritual director of Zen Peacemakers.

“The first year I was with Bernie, I think I counted 12 countries in 12 months: Bosnia, the Bahamas, Palestine, as well as a continuation of the SIT program in Rwanda,” said Efal.

“My sense is that all these cultures and languages are threads, and we’re creating this tapestry,” he said. Efal, referencing Glassman’s image of Indra’s Net — a mythical net extending through all space and time — imagines cultures as a web of connectedness, with all nodes related and reflecting each other.

“To all of sudden ‘be seen’ by an entire collective coming from different points on the net, I find that not only moving and inspiring, but see the effect of it as incredible,” he says.

Bearing witness

When Tiokasin Ghosthorse, of the Lakota Indian tribe — one of the many eclectic participants in the 2014 Auschwitz retreat, emerged with the others coming out of the hauntingly stark men’s death-camp barracks, he led everyone arranged around a circle in a traditional native prayer for balance between the masculine and feminine forces, against the background of a beautiful sunset.

“This was at Auschwitz, where my great-uncle was killed and the rest of my grandfather’s family died,” Efal reflects, “Here was this Indian praying for my ancestors. At that moment, I knew I had to go to South Dakota: I want to meet your culture. … You come and support me in my otherness, I come and support you in your otherness.”

In 2015, about 180 Zen Peacemakers gathered at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to bear witness to life in the Black Hills.

“(We went into the trips) with no agenda. Going to the youth center, playing with the kids, hearing what they’re doing, going to the river, offering meals, caulking some windows, sanding some entrances and some floors, visiting a wild mustang refuge,” Efal said, referring a second trip last fall.

That volunteer-organized “plunge” will be followed by an extended retreat Efal will help organize next summer, that includes a house-building component along with a meditation and a sharing-circle ritual.

Green, who has also worked around the world as a Leverett activist to build peace bridges, says “Rami is courageous … trusting himself with the unknown, for example, in his trip to Greece last year to engage with refugees stuck in limbo between their home countries and the promised land of Germany. Rami had no map, no plan. He found his way to human encounters with refugees, using his heart and his art skills where there was no common language. He plunged. He served. He honored.”

Taking action

Efal is now helping to coordinate a Zen Peacemaker Order as an umbrella for a international movement of hundreds of social activists and training centers, helping them see their activism as part of a whole to support and inspire one another.

“I’ve found the more I connect with things, the more I want to act,” says Efal, who became a U.S. citizen last summer and says has a deeper appreciation now of how we are a nation of immigrants, all with gifts to share. “Social activists feel burnt out or guilty that they’re not doing enough, but that stops being a problem once we start being connected. Taking action comes out of caring.”

“Seeing the image of the mass grave memorial I saw in Rwanda and in Bosnia,” Efal said, recalling his visit to the Native American memorial at Wounded Knee, “they literally all look the same. Not only the mass graves, but the fences and the sense of interconnection. Even our tragedies, our wars, connect us; even our wars are an expression of our connection.”

Along the way, the portraits that Efal creates for children he encounters from Greece to Bosnia build connection.

“It’s such a disarming experience,” says Efal, who began sketching portraits in the children’s wards of New York City hospitals, sometimes throwing out crayons for their patients to try their own hand at drawing, yet noticing, too, the fascination as they witness the American stranger closely following the contours of their face.

“It’s so intimate,” said Efal. “Our culture doesn’t do it enough. Its a great exercise to go into that space. Being seen for who you are is such a deep need for all of us.”

That idea proves to be the need fulfilled by participants in the retreats. Efal recalls a four-day experience he led in lower Manhattan last September in his blog:

“Days melted into nights and back to days, having no wallet, no phone, sleeping on cardboard under Broadway scaffoldings and in Chinatown basketball courts; keeping an eye out while a female friend pees between dumpsters on Lafayette early in the AMs; riding out midnight rains on the A train to Far Rockway and back; Begging McDonald’s to use the restrooms before dawn; Abraham offering me in Spanish half grilled chicken at the Bowery or Fatima welcoming us with rolling laughter and tears to her 15-block radius home for 29 years, buying US cups of sweet coffee and pleading with us not to forget her. Bearing witness to the elation and aversion, the bounty and the unknowable.”

Plunging into the theme of “not knowing” once again, Efal reflects, “When I enter something not knowing, its always new. It’s a huge practice of faith to realize that each moment, if I enter it with not knowing, I just look around at what’s in it, and trust.

“If I have so much trust in the moment, I develop faith in the world because nothing should or shouldn’t be, nothing’s in a right way or wrong way. … Its just an enlivened sense of trust that comes from life.”

For more information, visit: www.zenpeacemakers.org.