Latest update: February 19th, 2014
Rabbi Meir Schuster, known to thousands of lost Jews as the “Man of the Wall” who provided them with the spark to light up their lives with Torah, died in Jerusalem on Monday at the age of 71 and was buried on Har HaZeitim (Mount of Olives.)
Rabbi Schuster ran the Heritage House, a hostel for the proverbial lost and wandering Jew who, no matter how far away from Judaism, “did” the Western Wall (Kotel).
Rabbi Schuster, later with his assistant Jeff Seidel, gave food and lodging to thousands of young Jews, many of whom had no desire to know anything about Judaism. Many of them simply took up the offer for a free meal and bed with the idea of taking off the next day as if nothing exceptional had happened.
Many of them indeed forget about the rabbi and Heritage House, but many also never forgot and never have stopped thanking God for this man who in his quiet and unassuming way literally saved thousands of Jews from becoming lost forever.
On Rabbi Schuster’s website, people posted their personal stories, which were read to him during his recent treatment for cancer.
Following is the story of a man who is identified as “Reuven”:
I grew up with no knowledge about and no positive feelings for Judaism. In the autumn of 1981, after finishing college, I decided to travel through Europe.
Winter caught me moving further and further south, until I reached Greece. On a boat to Crete, I met some other fellow-travelers who told me that Israel was the place to go. Until then, it had honestly never entered my mind. I liked the thought of wintering on a kibbutz. After a couple of rainy months on the kibbutz, I decided to visit Jerusalem for a day or two.
I had barely entered Jaffa gate when I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. Turning around, I saw a tall, bearded man with a black hat and suit. What in the world did he want from me? “Are you Jewish?” he asked me.
I honestly didn’t know what to answer him. I had told the people at the kibbutz office that I wasn’t Jewish, but they saw right through me. Bored silly at the kibbutz, I had been reading “The Source” by Michener, and was actually, for the first time, getting interested in Israel and the Jewish people.
My hesitation was all he needed to hear. He asked me if I was hungry (what young traveler to Jerusalem on a cold, wet, winter day and a tight budget is not hungry?). For some strange reason I let him lead me to a nearby Yeshiva, which was my introduction to Judaism. It was, in all honesty, the first time in my life that I ever felt, and accepted being Jewish.
Now, 29 years later, living in Yerushalyim with a wife and many children, learning Torah and davening each day, I marvel at what R’ Schuster has been able to do. It was probably only R’ Schuster’s total, unadulterated sincerity and authenticity that disarmed me and convinced me to go with him.
I don’t think anyone else could have done it – I was that wary of ‘religious solicitors’. Had I sensed even a trace of self-interest, ‘charisma’ or ‘charm’ I would have bolted. He made himself into a shaliach for his Creator, and in his inimitable fashion, let nothing else get in the way.
Thank you R. Schuster.
That story has been duplicated hundreds of times over. Most rabbis who try to bring Jews back to Judaism are pushy. Many of them are nudgers and preachers. Rabbi Schuster was the opposite. He was gentle and never asked anything of anyone.
Another personal story: I met him in 1984, shortly after making aliyah after having return to the Orthodox Jewish life in which I grew up. I had never been to Israel when I moved here, and knew zilch about Israeli society and about Jerusalem. I stayed at the Heritage House simply because it was a convenient place for sleeping and eating and being introduced to families who hosted backpackers, although I was not one of them.
Thank God, I insisted on paying for my stay although Rabbi Schuster and Jeff Seidel said there was no need to do so. I made sure I was not taking the place of someone who really needed to be there. They did chesed for me, and their kindness gave me the opportunity I otherwise never would have had to meet Haredi families for a Shabbat dinner.
At the Heritage House, I met Jews with stories like Reuven, quoted above, who came to the Kotel with no Jewish upbringing and turned to Torah, thanks to Rabbi Schuster.
He was born in Milwaukee almost exactly 71 years ago. He attended public school until the age of 11, when his parents sent him to the traditional “afternoon Hebrew school” during the week.
Rabbi Schuster was drawn to the study of Torah and learned at the Skokie, Illinois yeshiva and later at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
He and wife married in late 1967 and moved to Israel three months later for a year, which turned into decades.
Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf wrote that Rabbi Schuster and a friend were at the Western Wall one day when they saw a backpacker who was obviously moved by the Western Wall.
Rabbi Schuster approached him and asked him if he would like to learn Torah, and the youth responded in the affirmative. That was the beginning of nearly four decades of Rabbi Schuster’s dedication to showing youth the Light of the Torah.
Rabbi Schuster took the backpackers to meals and for a bit of Torah study at Aish HaTorah, Ohr Samayach, Neve Yerushalayim and the Dvar Yerushalayim, the Diaspora Yeshiva.
Thanks to Rabbi Schuster, I visited all of those yeshivas – the first time in my life I ever entered a yeshiva.
Following his success with the Heritage House, Rabbi Schuster founded the Shorashim Heritage Centers in several cities in Israel, providing Torah studies to lost youth on a level they could understand.
Six years ago, Rabbi Schuster was diagnosed as having Lewy Body, a disease with debilitating symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, according to Rabbi Apisdorf.
I had forgotten about my experience at the Heritage House and my encounters with Rabbi Schuster until I heard of his passing a couple of hours ago.
I will never forget again.
About the Author: Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu is a graduate in journalism and economics from The George Washington University. He has worked as a cub reporter in rural Virginia and as senior copy editor for major Canadian metropolitan dailies. Tzvi wrote for Arutz Sheva for several years before joining the Jewish Press.
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