“Just go to the Western Wall?”
My friend nodded. It was the early 1990s, I was in college about to take my very first ever trip to Israel. After growing up hearing about Israel, I’d finally decided to go see it for myself: all year, I’d worked two campus jobs, saved every penny, and was about to spend a whole summer in Jerusalem, traveling around, taking Jewish classes, and studying Hebrew.
My plans were hazy; I hadn’t even thought about what I’d do on Shabbat. My friend cautioned me to be prepared: stores closed before sundown on Friday and public transportation ground to a halt. If I wanted to experience the real Israel, I’d have to join in a family celebration – and I could, he assured me, just by showing up at the Western Wall Friday at dusk.
Free meals just for showing up at a tourist attraction? I was sure it couldn’t be right. Besides, I realized, as I approached the Western Wall my first Friday in Israel, it was mobbed; there was no way I’d find these men at the Wall with all these people around – assuming they were even here.
As I made my way through the crowds, I watched my fellow visitors in their Shabbat finery. Suddenly, joining in a Shabbat celebration was something I was longing for. I placed my hand against the stones; after the heat of the day, they felt warm to the touch, almost like a living being. “Please help me,” I whispered. “Let me be a part of this too.”
When I looked up, I saw them: two men in the plaza in front of the Wall, each surrounded by a crowd. As I edged towards one circle, the man in the middle spotted me. He was tall, a little severe, and wore a black hat. I nearly edged away again, but he’d caught my eye. “You,” he said with the hint of a smile, “do you have any place to eat tonight?” I shook my head. He gave me a quick look, then, as if deciding something, nodded to one side. “Wait here,” he instructed, “I’ll take you to a family soon.”
I stood chatting with three other girls; they were in college too, also exploring Israel for the summer. Once we were finally acquainted, the man in the hat briskly ordered “Follow me!” and led us all away. We walked through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, and I was reminded of the fairy tale of the Pied Piper, except here, instead of the children of Hamlin following the Piper out into the countryside, we were a gaggle of mostly American, mostly young tourists being dropped off in groups at various houses and apartment buildings for dinner.
My new friends and I were among the last to be dropped off. “I’m taking you to a great family, very special people,” the man said, and led us deep into Mea Shearim, a Jerusalem neighborhood famous for its deeply religious residents. I’d been there already – my tour book called the neighborhood a must-see, unique for its resemblance to an Eastern European shtetl of old – and I was a little apprehensive to visit this foreign environment not as a tourist, but as a guest.
The man – I’d never thought to ask him his name – quickly introduced us to a young woman who’d come down to meet us. With a quick “Good Shabbos,” he was off.
My new friends and I stared at our Shabbat host. She looked roughly our age, but seemed much more sophisticated, with her stylish suit and perfect hair and makeup. I’ll never forget that night. The narrow streets of Mea Shearim were full of families wishing each other a warm “Good Shabbos.” Our meal was delicious; our hostess was funny and smart. At the end of the evening, she insisted on walking us half-way across the city. She didn’t mind the exercise, she explained; thanks to aerobics classes she was in good shape. The other girls and I were shocked: an ultra-Orthodox woman who did aerobics? I wanted to find other families like hers, to spend other Friday evenings immersed in Shabbat. I was hooked.
The next Friday, and the next, and the next, I went back to the Western Wall, sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own. Each time, I joined in the throngs around those two men at the Wall. One man was shorter and more outgoing – I soon learned his name was Jeffrey Seidel. The other man was tall, more reserved; I only found out later that he was Rabbi Meir Schuster, a distinguished rabbi who – among his many other activities – founded Heritage House, a guest house in Jerusalem’s Old City where thousands of young Jews through the years came to stay and explore Judaism.
A naturally shy and reserved man, Rabbi Schuster nevertheless forced himself to speak to the many visitors and tourists at the Wall. Day in and out, for over 40 years, Rabbi Schuster was a presence at the Western Wall, offering visitors help in connecting with a Shabbat meal, a class, a place to stay. He was known for his fierce dedication and commitment that stemmed from his deep caring for every Jew.
I left Israel at the end of that summer without ever saying thank you to Rabbi Schuster, and I never saw him again.
Last month, my husband and I were visiting Jerusalem. We got lost in the tangle of Old City streets and stopped a man to ask directions. I stared at him for a moment. “Jeffrey Seidel?” I asked, incredulously. It had been 25 years since he and Rabbi Schuster set me up for meals, and now, incredibly, I’d run into him again.
We caught up a little, and I finally got the chance to say thank you. I fished a picture of my kids out of my purse and showed it to Mr. Seidel. They’re growing up in a home where Shabbat is central to our weeks, I told him, largely because of those Shabbat meals he arranged. “Thank you,” I said. It took me 25 years to say it, but thank you.
Sadly I never got the chance to personally thank Rabbi Meir Schuster, of blessed memory. He died, after a lengthy illness, on February 17, 2014. This Shabbat I plan on telling my children about him. I’ll tell them how for a long time, I didn’t know Rabbi Schuster’s name. For me, he was simply the Man at the Wall.