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A Rabbi, a Pastor, and a Zen Monk Walk into a Bar…

…and agree that famously secular San Francisco is having a religious awakening. A divine conversation—with drinks.

From left to right: Haye, Monts, and Kushner

How does your approach break from tradition?
Haye: Buddhism is a very formal organization, and it can be austere and forbidding for newcomers. But part of our mission as Zen monks is to spread the dharma. So with YUZ, we wanted to break down the barriers and present the content in a more accessible way.
We don’t want to water down the content either—but we want to present it without the typical trappings that surround religion, without the formalities.

Noa, did you come up with the name “the Kitchen” to capitalize on the city’s food obsession?
Kushner: No, that was just lucky. The idea of the kitchen was that, well, almost everyone has one. (In New York City, we might not be able to say that!) The kitchen is the room where everyone wants to be, where everyone gathers—where it all goes down.
Kitchens are pretty central to us as well: We’ve been called a food cult before, and food preparation is considered part of the practice. Potlucks have become a big thing with YUZ; hikes, picnics, movie nights—it’s become a social outlet.

Your organizations are basically startups—but without VC backing. How do you make it work?
Monts: Yeah, Ikon did actually have a few “angel investors.” But 70 percent of our operating income comes from weekly offerings.
No way! We’re not allowed to handle money on Shabbat. We can’t pass a basket.
We have a unique financial situation. Tassajara [the Carmel Valley Zen Center, which doubles as a summer resort] is basically a cash cow for us, and we also have Greens Restaurant.
I have to do it, but I’m not equipped to run the business side of the church. I don’t have an MBA—I went to Bible school!
The Kitchen is as risky as any startup. We have some grants, which help, and we charge membership fees—we have to pay our teachers. But I’d love to see a venture capitalist invest in a religious organization! The payoff won’t come in money, but I’d love to meet a VC who sees payoff in a spiritual light. I see it every day.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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