Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is Director of the Ner LeElef Institute for Leadership Training and Senior Advisor to Morasha Olami. He was a director and the executive-director of the Heritage House for 20 years. Ner LeElef was originally started as a project of the Heritage House.
A giant has fallen and, like all of the great founders of the Baal Teshuva movement, he will never, can never, be replaced. Rabbi Meir Schuster was produced by his era, but he also shaped it. For over three decades, it was he who single-handedly filled many of the Baal Teshuva yeshivot.
How does one sum up this man through whom hundreds began their journey to Judaism, including many of the senior figures in this movement today?
How does one speak about a man who rarely spoke– almost never about his own feelings and not too much about things outside of his passion? (Though, when we would drive together he revealed very clear opinions on a whole range of issues.) How does one gain a sense of a man who was so intense that I once saw him drive in a circle rather than go straight because he could not bear to stand still at a red light?
There is, of course, the Rabbi Meir Tzvi Schuster that ten thousand people will recognize – the inarticulate man who approached people at the Western Wall and asked them for the time as a conversation opener to asking them whether they were Jewish and, if so, whether they wanted to go and study in Yeshiva. I am convinced he opened that way – sometimes with his watch in full view on his wrist – not because he was manipulative, but because, being socially inept, it was the best line he could think of… even after 30 years! Oh the stories that are told from those encounters…
“I broke all the rules,” one American girl told me. “I went in a car, in a strange country, with a strange man, to a place I never heard of.” Reb Meir (as we fondly called him) was taking her to Neve Yesushalyim, a Jerusalem-based seminary for novices. “But I trusted the man. He radiated authenticity.”
Somehow, he was everywhere. The joke was that if you needed to find him, you should just stand still on any corner and he would find you. Two young, unaffiliated South Africans once gave an insight as to how far this omnipresence went.
These young men had been staying at the Heritage House, going to a class here and there, with no more than a mild interest in their Judaism. Time passed and they moved on to Jordan, Egypt… and then who knows. Rabbi Schuster would often write postcards to people like this, and often visit them if he happened to be in their city. But these kids just disappeared over the horizon. Until one day, one of them reappeared, checked into Aish HaTorah, and started learning full time.
“What happened?” I asked. He smiled. “We were in Egypt and we turned on the TV. There was something about Jerusalem and they showed live footage of the Kotel, and there on Egyptian TV, I saw Rabbi Meir Schuster, as if beckoning me to come back.”
“And what happened then?”
“So we fled to Turkey. But the same thing happened. Rabbi Meir Schuster appeared on Kotel footage on Turkish TV… So we fled to Spain. I was at the main bus terminal of Madrid, waiting for a bus to depart to another city. I had a few hours so I reflected on everything that had happened. I never took that bus. I went to the airport, bought a ticket for Israel and went straight to Aish.”
There was no escaping Rabbi Meir Schuster.
This man from Milwaukee – who was his own institution – established two Heritage House hostels (in 1985) for Jewish backpackers that had a flow-through of thousands of people each year. Together with myself and Rabbi Yirmiyahu Abramov, he started what eventually became nine drop-in Shorashim centers for Israelis around the country.
We started these during the Intifada of 2000. The Americans stopped visiting, so Reb Meir got it into his head that it was time for us to focus on Israelis. We really didn’t have a clue how to do this, but he wasn’t giving up. “We have to help the Israelis and we have to help them now!” was his peremptory and passionate demand. Reb Meir spoke, not with the commanding authority of a general, but rather like someone who has been sent from the frontlines with an urgent message to tell.
I decided to do what many of us had done on previous occasions – hold onto his garments and ride on the special Siyata Dishmaya he seemed to have. (I know a Rosh Yeshiva that wanted to do a project with us so that he would have access to that Siyata Dishmaya.)
The first center was opened in the heart of Jerusalem’s downtown district, with subsequent centers in Herzliya, Haifa, Modiin and Pardes Chana. Within ten years of opening the first center, over 50,000 young Israelis had tasted Jewish wisdom and spirituality at Shorashim.
Much later in his career, he agreed now and then to speak in public. He would quote the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (דף נה:). The Gemara says that one is only obligated to rebuke someone when there is at least some chance that he will accept. If one is certain that he will not accept at all, then one is exempt from the mitzvah. Later on in the Gemara, it states:
G-d said to Gavriel: “Go and mark in ink [the shape of a] ת on the foreheads of the righteous so that the Angels of Destruction have no mastery over them. But on the foreheads of the evil mark their foreheads with aת of blood so that the Angels of Destruction are able to subdue (lit. rule over) them.”
To which the Attribute of Justice responded to G-d: “Master of the Universe, in which way are these (the righteous), different from these (the evil).
Said G-d: “These are perfectly righteous and these are perfectly evil.”
Responded the Attribute of Justice: “Master of the Universe, they (the righteous) could have rebuked yet they did not do so.”
G-d said: “It is revealed and known to Me, that if they would have attempted to rebuke the evil, they would not have accepted the rebuke.”
The Attribute of Justice responded: “Master of the Universe. This was known to you; but was it known to them.”
And this is the explanation of what is written in the continuation of the verses: “The old, the youths and the virgins, the babies and the women were killed by the destroyer … and they began with the righteous old men.”
For Reb Meir, this was not just another Dvar Torah. It spoke deeply to him. The Gemara is telling us that we will pay a huge price if we don’t take responsibility. It is telling us to approach anyone when there is the slightest chance that they will listen. He lived this Gemara.
In his last years of good health, Rabbi Schuster was raising a significant budget. He fundraised like he did everything else – with tenacity and thoroughness and persistence – not letting even a $10 donor go without him personally picking up the check. The donors contributed for the same reason that the backpackers went to yeshiva – an open agenda, a passionate love for Judaism, and a deep caring for each soul. There was no sophisticated pitch – in fact, I resigned myself to the fact that almost no donor of his would ever get a presentation of the full range of Heritage House’s activities. But it was so obvious that he was the real deal that he could walk straight into the homes of even those whose fortress-like defenses let no fundraising intruder in.
Born January 22, 1943, public school-educated, his connection with Judaism in his youth was with an afternoon Hebrew School. But there was no ordinary man in charge. Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski took a personal interest in the young Stanley (as he was then called), and Stanley went to Skokie Yeshiva (Bais Medrash L’Torah ) in 1958, and then onto Ner Israel in Baltimore. He already stood out as someone who was passionately devoted to Torah study, to prayer and to mitzvah observance, and he would be the one to get up early and wake all his fellow students for morning prayers. He would go through the dormitories and earnestly call out, “Wake up, Wake up – it’s time to serve Hashem.” Perhaps one could understand already then that he would go through life giving this same message in a different form to the unaffiliated. “Wake up, Wake up – it’s time to serve Hashem.”
In 1967, he got married. He and his wife Esther came to Israel with just three suitcases so that he could study in the Mir for a year. They never left. As this is being written, Mrs. Esther Schuster is sitting shiva in Jerusalem with her son and two daughters.
Soon after coming, Rabbi Schuster and his old friend Rabbi Chaim Kass were at the Kotel where they a saw young man with little connection to Judaism who had been crying at the Wall. Chaim asked if he would be interested in learning about Judaism, and the young man responded positively. That started it all. Chaim and Meir Tzvi started going regularly to the Wall, with Chaim talking at first (because of Meir Tzvi’s shyness and lack of articulateness). But the young Meir Tzvi soon took over and he never looked back.
Reb Meir would often be having a conversation with someone and he would see a backpacker walking past. He would immediately pursue him, often leaving the original person – a donor, a friend, a rabbi (it made no difference) – in mid-sentence. It took getting used to, but everyone understood that this man was committed to a higher mission. The last thing that Reb Meir was capable of understanding was that he should make a good impression or that he should do something for his own honor or that he should somehow follow social rules when higher things were at stake.
The amazing thing about all this is that, for all he built up, he never got distracted. He never became an institutional man. He stayed at that Kotel, or on Ben Yehuda Street or visited an Arab hostel in the Moslem Quarter late at night to try and persuade a Jewish kid to come and stay in his Jewish hostels. He did this in the blazing sun and the freezing cold, often getting soaked. He did this seven days a week – coming every Friday night to place kids with families, and returning there in the morning (an hour’s walk from his home) to place whoever showed up for the lunch-time meal. He was there on festivals and he went with his family to be there over the High Holidays. He never complained, he never took off his hat and jacket in order to present a “friendlier face” and he never wavered. He stopped only because he got a degenerative disease which left him incapacitated.
There was nothing that he did not do with an almost nerve-wracking intensity accompanied by a profound simplicity. Often, with his door closed in his office next to mine (he would come in from ‘the field’ for just a couple of hours a day), he would start clapping his hands and begin – full throttle – to bentch (Birkat Hamazon). Very few people pray like that on Yom Kippur, let alone in a private bentching! He would tell me how much he hated a fast mincha. That is why he liked to be the shaliach tzibbur. But he gave much more than just pace to the minchas. They were super-filled with kavana and intensity. One couldn’t be around a man like that and not be affected.
Yet it wasn’t all inspiration. It was tough, working with someone whose passion-filled line to me was, “We have to do this now”, fully expecting that the mountain of “right-aways” would somehow melt into a cascade of instant solutions. That feeling – that we have no time, that what we don’t do today we cannot do tomorrow, that there are Jews intermarrying every day – terrified him and kept him in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with anything he had achieved thus far.
I have met many people who care deeply for the Jewish people. I have never yet met someone who translated it into the deeply personalized caring of every Jewish soul that was Reb Meir’s way. He would fork out money to buy people new airline tickets (and tell them that he managed to change them so that they didn’t feel bad) so that student-aged non-affiliated youth could study about their heritage a little longer. When someone left for home, he would ask them to hand deliver a letter to someone in their area. Invariably, and unbeknownst to its messenger, the letter would ask the recipient to look after the person in front of him. He would never give up on anyone, never tire of asking someone, for the umpteenth time, if they wanted to go to a class – just one. And he would take them there and pick them up himself.
There are so many unusual stories about this man and about the people he affected for life. But his daily routine wasn’t about the exotic. If he had dropped someone off at yeshiva or seminary, he would look them up every day to find out how they were doing and whether they needed anything. If he ever thought that he offended me, I would find a halva-bar on my desk later that day. That little gesture made him so huggable! Yet, I don’t think Rabbi Meir Zvi Schuster received a lot of hugs. He was too busy initiating hugs of his own.
 לוכחינהו מר להני דבי ריש גלותא א”ל לא מקבלי מינאי א”ל אע”ג דלא מקבלי לוכחינהו
 א”ל הקב”ה לגבריאל לך ורשום על מצחן של צדיקים תיו של דיו שלא ישלטו בהם מלאכי חבלה ועל מצחם של רשעים תיו של דם כדי שישלטו בהן מלאכי חבלה אמרה מדת הדין לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע מה נשתנו אלו מאלו אמר לה הללו צדיקים גמורים והללו רשעים גמורים אמרה לפניו רבש”ע היה בידם למחות ולא מיחו אמר לה גלוי וידוע לפני שאם מיחו בהם לא יקבלו מהם אמר לפניו רבש”ע אם לפניך גלוי להם מי גלוי והיינו דכתיב זקן בחור ובתולה טף ונשים תהרגו למשחית … ויחלו באנשים הזקנים
Rabbi Schuster zt”l was Hashem’s shliach who saved my life (in the Old City) by taking me to a yeshiva where I eventually became frum, serving Hashem in a way that R’ Schuster would have wanted from that very first tap.