A Tribute to Rabbi David A. Cooper

by Avraham Rami Efal

Reb. David Cooper, Zen Masters Bernie Glassman and 
Francisco “Paco” Lugoviña during a street retreat, after visiting the Sufi Lodge 
of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Community, New York City 1999. Photo credit: Peter Cunningham

I owe Reb David Cooper a debt of gratitude, even though I have only spent a long weekend with him during his last year. His life and teachings validate the search of those like me who travel along the continuum of world spirituality and Jewish practice.

In June 2018 I went to Tennessee with Miriam Eisenberger, who is David and Shoshana Cooper’s longtime student and one of the teachers at their “Coopers Retreats.” I met a very tall man with large and piercing eyes, kind and welcoming, and felt the presence of an Atik Yomin. When he heard that I trained with Bernie Glassman, founder of Zen Peacemakers, his eyes grew like a child in a candy store and asked me about Koan study – the unique Zen meditation practice involving whole-body visualization. He was eager to discuss his own moment-to-moment experience of “David-ing,” but what left the strongest impression in me was the transparency, vulnerability, tears, and humor with which he did that. He and Shoshana both spoke of this chapter in their lives – this far into David living with Lewy body disease – with tender humility. That weekend, the veils were very thin.

Born as a secular Israeli, I stepped onto the spiritual path through Zen Buddhism. For four years I lived between a Zen temple and monastery and considered living as a monastic. But after reading about Zen Master Bernie Glassman’s retreats in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp where some of my Polish and Hungarian ancestors were killed, I left the monastery and joined Bernie there. For the next six years, I would return to Auschwitz with the Zen Peacemakers. On my sixth trip to that beautiful and tragic land, I heard a small voice – in me? or from a spirit trailing from the camp? – this voice was yearning to reclaim its Judaism. I let this voice lead. One month later, I joined my friend Rabbi Shir Yaakov Feit on the 2018 “Coopers Retreat” at Hazon.

What transpired there was a watershed moment, where that small voice rejoiced and roared in affirmation. My love for silence was well-established after fifteen years of meditation practice. But it was the prayers in Ivrit that broke my heart open, the faces of Jewish brothers and sisters of different Jewish denominations, ethnicities, gender and sexual orientations – but all Jewish – melting the cold ice of self-shame and self-hate that – I then learned – I had internalized. Their voices filled the library, and Reb Zalman’s face kept appearing on the shelf behind the curtain, smiling. One Shacharit, behind my tallit, which was soaked with tears, I thought, “Buddhism showed me how, Judaism shows me why.” Not long after the retreat I applied to the ALEPH Ordination Program.

As I read Reb David’s books and watched his talks, his simple way of speaking of non-dual practice sounds familiar from my Zen monastery days. I appreciate his role in continuing the western legacy of Buddhist dharma in the west – the study of the mind – and continuing the lineage of the Merkavah & Heichalot mystics and prophets.

The streams of Reb David and Bernie, as well as Reb Zalman, intermingle in me. They were all mystics, as well as world-facing Jews. Along with Bernie, Reb David embarked on street retreats in New York City and in Auschwitz-Birkenau, bearing witness to homelessness and genocide. They brought the same depth of care and awareness practice that they cultivated in their meditation to the extremes, the edge of human experience.

In this post-holocaust, Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter era, the “Coopers Retreat” – like Bernie Glassman’s Auschwitz-Birkenau “Bearing Witness” retreat – is not only a container to practice, through silence and prayer, deep-plunging into the unfolding Oneness. It is an important, effective way that those of Jewish heritage like me can go on to reconcile, heal, and unify our complex historical, psychological, and spiritual make-up. All that, so we may emerge as visionaries and leaders into the Olam Haba – “the next world,” this very moment! – a world that demands we show up as multi-faceted, integrated, and dependable allies to our Native American, African American, Palestinian relatives, and others who are underprivileged – and as steward for our organic, living eco-system, the Planet Earth.

May Rabbi David’s soul be elevated and blessed. May his Presence entice me to ever go to essence, to experience life directly, at this very moment, which is none other than Mochin De’gadlot. Sing-ing, marvel-ing, laugh-ing, love-ing, never separate from this glorious and completely mundane unfolding Mystery. Thank you, David-ing.

Avraham Rami Efal is a dharma holder in the Zen Peacemakers Lineage and currently a rabbinic student in the ALEPH Ordination Program.