By Deborah Fineblum
Jeff Seidel is a left-hander who cheerfully admits to having a terrible sense of direction. “It’s the worst,” he says with a grin. “I get lost coming out of the shower.”
But if there’s one way the man’s sense of direction is unerring it’s when it comes to making sure that the next generation receives its inheritance: the gift of a Jewish identity and belonging strong enough to transform lives, communities, and ultimately, the Jewish future. And he’s applying every ounce of his considerable energies to see to it that they have the tools and support they need to do just that.
After nearly four decades of working with college students, Seidel can spot from across the Western Wall plaza those who could use a home-cooked Shabbat meal or a warm family embrace—the kids with the potential for a deeper connection to their Jewish souls, their people and their homeland. At the center of Seidel’s bulls-eye is the cadre of college and graduate students in Israel for a semester or year abroad, as well as Birthright travelers and those on gap-year programs.
Seidel, who at 61 is recognizable by his trademark saddle shoes and Midwestern friendliness, has been a fixture at the Kotel since 1980. That’s when he arrived in Israel with a freshly minted master’s degree in psychology from Roosevelt University in Chicago and a determination to give young Jews the taste of a traditional Shabbat. But these days, Seidel doesn’t just rely on catching college kids there and sending them off to a Shabbat table where the food and the family are both warm; he runs a multi-pronged keruv (“Jewish outreach”) operation.
On his desk in the hole-in-the-wall Jeff Seidel Student Center offices in the Old City’s Rova Square is a heavily annotated printout of Shabbat meal matches between students and the more than 50 families who have volunteered to host them. It’s a list in a constant state of flux with last-minute edits almost until sundown on Fridays.
Jacob Nemeth was walking through the Old City last year with his Birthright group when a man came up to him with a smile and a gift: a prayer book. “Before I knew it, he was sending me Facebook messages asking when I was coming back to Israel,” relates Nemeth.
It didn’t take Seidel long to size up and then arrange an internship for him in Israel, which turned out to be “an absolutely amazing experience,” says Nemeth.
While in Israel, he was taken under Seidel’s sizable wing, where Shabbat meals, and invitations to parties and events, materialized.
“I tell my friends that when they get to Israel, they have to meet Jeff,” says Nemeth, who is back in the United States finishing up at the University of Hartford and waiting to hear if he lands an AIPAC fellowship. “If it weren’t for Jeff, none of this would have happened—not my internship, and not my connection with my Judaism and Israel.”
A household name
Nemeth is one 13,605 young Jews the man reaches each year through the three Jeff Seidel Student Centers, where students get a hot meal, and an inspiring program and the trips he leads to Poland and around Israel and Europe, as well as the Birthright travelers he sends off with prayer books and his Facebook information.
But it’s the Shabbat and yontif meals he has arranged over the years, giving countless young Jews their first taste of a traditional Shabbat, that’s done more than any other achievement to make Seidel a household name.
It’s been exactly 20 years since Mindi Zissman was a University of Wisconsin undergraduate spending her junior year at Hebrew University. “It was my first week in Israel, and Jeff was waiting for us when we walked out of a bar. He called out, ‘Who wants to go for a Shabbos meal?’ she recalls. “For me, that was the beginning.”
Still, don’t think Seidel is too much of a big shot to answer the phone himself. He usually picks up the one in the office by the second ring, and no matter what else he’s got going, he wants to hear what the caller has to say. On a recent afternoon, his end of the conversation went something like: “No seder plans yet? Young lady, don’t you worry. We are going to take care of you. Shoot me an SMS, and I’ll get you a great family. You’re going to love ’em.”
No sooner does he hang up than three students from South Africa pop in. Does he have an extra tallis to borrow because one’s a Kohen and wants to do the mass Kohen blessing at the Kotel over Passover? (Why yes, says Seidel, he does.) Making sure they’re set for the Passover seder, he invites them to drop by his place afterwards.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll still be up.”
A seat at the table
It started modestly enough. In 1980, as a 22-year-old fresh off the plane from Chicago, Seidel started hanging out near the Kotel looking for kids without a Shabbat meal, while scouring the area for families willing to host.
Even as a kid, Seidel had a taste for keruv. He was 11 when three medal winners at the 1968 Olympics raised their fists in a black power salute. “I asked myself, ‘Where’s Jewish power?’ ” And two years later, he insisted on having his bar mitzvah on a Sunday rosh chodesh (the first of the month when the Torah is read), “so none of our guests would break Shabbat by driving. I was brought up with traditional Judaism, but I always knew there was something more.”
But even this keruv Energizer Bunny can’t be everywhere. So Seidel, not content with the young Jews fate sends his way, has erected an entire scaffolding of programs to catch as many as he can.
Each year thousands of young adults flock to his student centers near the campuses of Hebrew, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities. There they find a variety of programs and services, from kosher meals to computer rooms, programs—even an on-site laundry.
As a newcomer to Hebrew University on a one-year program, 22-year-old Gilly Mizrahi heard about a challah-baking event at the center. Soon she was attending lunch-and-learns and weekly “ladies’ night” activities. “It’s a home away from home for me,” she says. “A place I belong.”
Other Seidel brainchildren include JeffsTravelGuide.com, which provides students Jewish contacts around the world, distributing thousands of prayer books and Bibles; and GetShabbat.com, a website for finding a Friday-night meal nearly anywhere in the world.
“I left Jeff’s office with something that changed my life forever,” says Lauren (Miriam) Nades, who stopped by last year after her Birthright trip ended. “I use the siddur he gave me every day. It’s changed the direction of my life.” In addition, Seidel helped her find a host for the Sukkot holiday back home in Florida and has now been instrumental in her plans to return to Israel next year to learn.
“Before I came to Israel, I was a spiritual seeker but not religious at all,” says Nades. “Jeff helped me discover that Judaism had all the answers I was searching for.”
Seidel is ringmaster of a lively Facebook group Worldwide Jewish Network with 26,000 members and runs Scholarship to Israel, which helps with the costs of Jewish learning programs, as well as the Max Steinberg Israel Diplomacy Program, advocacy training named for the American lone soldier killed in 2014.
But one of Seidel’s highest-impact initiatives are the student trips he runs throughout Israel, as well as to the death camps of Poland.
“When I heard about the Poland trip, I knew I wanted to do it for my grandmother, who lost her whole family in Auschwitz,” says Dylan Goldberg. “To see the names of my great-great aunt, uncles and cousins listed there, to stand on the rubble of their barracks brought it all home to me. It made it so much more important to marry someone Jewish and raise my children Jewish.”
Since returning to the University of Michigan, Goldberg has upped her connection to the Jewish community. “In Israel, they told me I’d always have a seat at their table. Someday, I want to be able to do that for others.”
Growing in their understanding as Jews
What does Seidel see in a student that makes him want to take that particular young Jew to Poland? “It’s some potential they have to grow in their commitment to Israel and our people, a kind of sincerity,” he says. But he’s delighted when he’s wrong. “Sometimes, I’ll take a chance on someone, and they turn out to be really changed by the experience. Maybe there was one little thing we did or said that turned that kid on Jewishly.”
“Jeff told me to keep my eyes open—that the kids you least expect will be the ones, and he was right,” says David Sultan of New York, who met felt the Seidel magic in Israel a quarter-century ago and now helps subsidize the Poland trips.
A few years ago, he came along and observed his investment in action. “The trip gives them a whole new perspective on what it means to be part of this Jewish people and shows them where they come from. And on so many campuses, where it’s not cool to love Israel, this strengthens them.”
Traveling with Seidel to Poland gave Samantha Zive an insight into what drives the man. “He’s so passionate about Judaism that we jumped out of our comfort zone.” Standing in the gas chamber in Majdanek, with the only sound Seidel assistant Rabbi Ezra Amichai chanting a solemn “Gam Ki Elech”(the 23rd psalm: “Even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me”). Zive says “everyone was bawling [their] eyes out. It wasn’t a visit to an historic place; it was a very personal journey.”
Through those tears, Seidel sees them growing in their understanding of themselves as Jews.
Few know Seidel’s secret: Poland depresses him. “My wife tried to get me to watch a Holocaust movie with her, and I said I just can’t watch any more Jewish death. But I know this place has the power to turn the kids’ hearts and minds to love and identify with our people and our history, to understand who we are and why. Because if they don’t feel deep inside that the Jewish people is theirs, then they’ll walk away from it. Poland is powerful, so I go on autopilot. It’s all for the Jewish people.”
But when it comes to working his idiosyncratic magic on the Jewish future, someone’s got to pay the fare. And that gets Seidel on the plane three or four times a year to fundraise (and visit his 90-year-old parents in Chicago). He estimates that he raises and spends about $1 million a year, nearly all of it donations from North American Jews. This money runs the centers, covers his payroll (of 10 staff members) and the rent on his office, underwrites trips and replenishes his supply of books.
It’s fair to say that, between his trips to raise money and those to raise Jewish consciousness, his Kotel Shabbat-meal matchmaking, visiting his centers and prowling the bars on Thursday nights for kids who could use a Shabbat meal, the man isn’t home much.
His wife says she should have gotten the picture the moment she met her future husband one cold Jerusalem night in 1982. “He introduced himself, then turned to the young woman sitting next to me and asked, ‘Do you have a place for Shabbat?’ ”
Thirty-seven years and five kids later, they’ve served thousands of meals to students in their Old City home, where the door is always open.
The lifestyle didn’t come as a shock to Peninah Seidel. Growing up in a Chabad-Lubavitch family in Minneapolis-St. Paul, “having lots of guests was always our norm, and it still is. With keruv, it’s not a job. It’s an adventure.”
Still, that adventure can be stressful for this intensive-care nurse. “It’s not always easy being married to Peter Pan,” she sighs. “Every year when the new students come, he presses the ‘re-set’ button, and we get to make friends with sophomores again. Sometimes, our home feels like [the film] ‘Animal House.’ ”
Then a reminder of the importance of what her husband spends 60 hours a week doing appears. “A woman came up to us in the airport and said, ‘Jeff Seidel? You fixed me up with my first Shabbat meal!”
Although he’s an optimist (those laugh lines give him away), there are a few irritants that get to Seidel. Things like the “BDS lies” they’ll hear back on campus, and the young Jews who never get to Israel and “don’t know what huge, rich piece of themselves they’re missing.”
Certainly, he realizes that not everyone is a fan of his particular style or even the outreach itself, particularly parents who are worried about their children heading off to Israel in the first place. “Sure, I get criticized, but look at it this way,” he says. “If a kid comes home from Birthright and tells his parents he’s joining the IDF, are his parents going to scream at Hillel for organizing the trip? Something he saw in Israel touched something inside him, and that’s what he needs to do.”
The same principle, he says, applies to the young Jews who attend his programs or go to a Shabbat dinner. “When it changes the way they see Judaism and themselves, it’s something inside them or they wouldn’t have responded. Besides,” he adds with a grin, “criticism means we’re having an impact, so we must be doing something right.”
And then are the stories that haunt him. Like the young man he met at the wall who told him that his father is Jewish and was in then-Palestine after the Shoah but returned to Austria, married a non-Jewish girl and left his Judaism far behind. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” said Seidel. “The kid’s story weighed so heavy on my heart.”
Still, for every sad tale, just when he starts to run out of juice, there’s one that keeps it all going.
“There was a fella at Hebrew University years ago, and I would try to get him to go to programs and he never would. I’d book him for Shabbos meals and he’d cancel. At the end of the year, he said to me, ‘Jeff, I know you tried very hard to get me, but I have a friend coming next year and you’ve got to meet him.’ In the back of my mind I’m thinking to myself, ‘Not another guy like you; you pulled my kishkas out.’ But six months later, I get a call from a kid who says, “My friend told me I’ve got to come to the center.’ The kid loved it, starting coming two, three times a week. And today, he’s a rabbi.”
Seidel realizes that it’s a fine line he needs to walk. “I know they’re hungry for it, but I don’t squeeze ’em. It may take some time, but on some level, they’re all going to get it.”
The power of Torah and ‘mitzvot’
“When you’re in college, you’re open to new identities and beliefs, which is why keruv during those years is so important,” says Zissman, in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah. “And Jeff is super warm and actually hilarious—a regular guy they can connect to.”
But all kibitzing aside, the man never takes his eyes off the prize, she adds. “He knows the power of Torah and mitzvot, and connecting young Jews to them and their Jewish selves is his life mission.”
Seidel sees them for both who they are and who they can become. “I know it has to come from them—that only they can become passionately Jewish enough to resist the temptations back home.”
“But you know what? Nobody gave me a license to do keruv,” he says. “I just know I have to help Jews bring out Jewish souls. I just go out to work every day and do that.”
Zive says “we may only be 2 percent of the population, but when we’re together we’re so much more. And Jeff gives us the opportunity to do that, to be that.”
From Tel Aviv University student Taylor Freeman’s poem written on the last day of this spring’s Poland trip:
“We are louder than gunshots.
We are louder than ghettos and concentration camps and selections.
We are louder. We are resilient. We are forever.
We are Jewish.”
“These kids, they can own their Jewish selves, and know who they are and where they belong,” Seidel says with a sigh. “With so many of our kids having nothing, it breaks my heart … and it keeps me going.”
Seidel by the Numbers
• 13,605 young Jews reached each year
• 20,000 prayer books, Bibles and other Jewish books given to students over 15 years
• 10,000 Shabbat meals arranged each year
• 3,000 students attending programs at the three Jeff Seidel Centers annually