Don Singer died on Wednesday, January 11, of covid. He died in his sleep, which couldn’t happen to a nicer man.
Don was a rabbi, first and foremost. He was also a fully transmitted Zen teacher, but first and foremost, he was a rabbi.
It was important for Bernie to formally recognize the intersection of Zen with other religious traditions given how many religious wars we’d gone through, interfaith work was peacemaking work. By that he didn’t mean interfaith conferences, of which there are many, but rather practicing in other traditions, becoming accustomed to a variety of religious vocabularies and holidays, in short: other names for God. Various Jewish personalities weaved in and out of the Zen Peacemakers during Bernie’s tenure, including Shlomo Carlebach and Don Singer. It’s no accident that both rabbis loved to sing.
To this very day, he is probably the only rabbi who’s also a lineage holder in the Zen tradition. For Don, that meant conveying life, love, and God all at once—he would have probably said they’re all the same—through song, poetry, laughter, and Hasidic stories. Nothing stymied him. I never saw him faced with a situation, no matter how negative, in which he couldn’t evoke life, love and God. People approached him with tears in their eyes, hurt, aggrieved, defeated, and heartbroken, and Rabbi Don kept on doing what he always did, reminding them of life, love, and God, accompanied by warm eyes, warmer laughter, and many hugs.
It bugged me, I can’t deny it. I once said to him, “Don, not everything is happy.” In many ways I was the opposite of him, I had a hard time giving in to unalloyed joy, I didn’t have a sunny disposition, still don’t. But I’ve been changed over the years because of people like Don.
I was surprised at the impact Rabbi Don’s death had on me. I took in the tributes to his indomitable spirit and relentless love pouring across email and social media, smiling to myself, thinking: Yes, yes, that was him all right. No, not everything is happy, but Don’s unique contribution to this life was infusing joy wherever he went.
I thought of how often I see someone who doesn’t fit my ideal picture of who he or she should be, and instead of appreciating the gift the person brings I spent ridiculous energy wishing they would be different. More like me.
Many people remember Rabbi Don from the Zen Peacemakers’ annual retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he served as the Jewish leader over some 10 retreats. Those of us who were there at the very first retreat in 1996 remember what happened that very first night, after people had seen the exhibits and walked the grounds of gas chambers and crematoria. There were participants from over a dozen countries, all overwhelmed, tired, in shock. Not Don. He burst into song and then, inevitably, led 155 people in dance all around the auditorium at the Auschwitz Museum.
That included me, but not everybody. Some wouldn’t take others’ hands, refused to dance, refused to sing. “Not here,” they said, “not here.”
At the end of that night, we had a staff meeting and people looked at each other, stunned. What just happened? Nobody had planned this. We were counting on grief, devastation, anger, even rage. But dance?
Over the years I was to see this again and again. You go into places of devastation, you hear stories of mass murder and genocide, and in the middle of all that somebody starts to sing. A beautiful smile appears. Somebody tells a joke, makes a funny play on words, and suddenly everyone remembers life, remembers love and God. Even as we mourn, we celebrate.
I think that was Don’s legacy for all these bearing witness retreats. Love was everywhere, nothing was greater than that. This morning we did a brief memorial service for the rabbi, and a woman who’d attended the Auschwitz retreat this past November, long after Don had finally stopped going there, said to me: “I turned to one of the spirit holders of the retreat and asked: ‘How is it that there’s so much life here?'”
That was the piece that Don left us, not just in Poland but in other places, too.
At the death camps we’d walk towards a crematorium compound that consisted of the dressing area where people undressed, a gas chamber where they were murdered, and finally the crematory where their bodies were burned. There are openings to those compounds, and Don would pause there and lead us in song. What song? “Open to me the gates of righteousness, I will enter and will thank Thee.”
Gates to crematoria—gates of righteousness? I will enter there and thank God? It was inconceivable to me at first. I’d hang back and internally shake my head. God might be everywhere, I thought, but not here. Not here!
So once when a dear friend gave a hearty belly laugh over breakfast before walking to Birkenau, I approached and in my self-righteous, indignant voice, said: “How can you laugh like that here? It’s a graveyard, for heaven’s sake, we can’t laugh like that!”
But some 20 years later I would remember that song and sing it quietly to myself upon entering old dorms in Murambi, Rwanda, and encountering hundreds of skeletons lying where they were murdered by machete, mostly women and children, in 1995.
It’s hard to explain to people back home what you find when you go to these places. Back home they say: “OMG, Auschwitz-Birkenau! How terrible for you! Must have been just awful to be there.” Not in our retreats, I think to myself. In different ways over the years, I’ve tried to express in words what I find there and have failed miserably.
Yes, I try to say, there’s so much death there, so much savage killing. But it’s not stagnant, it’s not history, it’s alive. You sense souls, you hear voices, the air hums in your ears and strokes your skin, reminding you that there’s no such thing as life separate from death. Life, love, and God are everywhere—and there most of all.
This morning it hit me how Rabbi Don Singer had given all our retreats this particular flavor. No matter where we go, there’s really nothing to fear.