Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt"l
Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt"l, who passed away last week, was the great man of the generation in terms of his devotion to a particular mission. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah, constantly held Rabbi Schuster up to his students as the exemplar of the "power of one" – the power of each of us to dramatically change the world if we could just put our egos aside and acknowledge that success or failure is not in our hands, but Hashem's. The path of virtually every Aish student in the early decades began with an encounter – often several – with Rabbi Schuster.
When Reb Meir first started to maintain his vigil for young Jewish backpackers at the Kosel, his own ego needs played no role. He never asked himself whether he was well-suited to approach hundreds of complete strangers every day for nearly forty years or likely to be successful getting them to taste Torah for the first time. For if he had asked the question, the answer would have been a resounding no. But in his calculations only Hashem's purposes counted.
There was never a person less likely to do what Reb Meir did than Reb Meir himself. Over the years, there were others who patrolled the Kosel precincts in search for young Jews lacking knowledge of their heritage. All were more extroverted and flashy than Reb Meir. Most did valuable work. But none were able to sustain the effort year after year as he did or to match his impact.
In our first years in Jerusalem, my wife and I used to take guests nearly every Friday night from among those picked up by Reb Meir at the Kosel. The phone would ring on Thursday night. Caller identification had not yet been invented, but it was not needed: If I picked up the phone and there was silence on the other end, I would ask, "Hello, Rabbi Schuster, is that you?"
Reb Meir was so shy that he found it difficult to begin a conversation over the phone with someone whom he knew well. And yet virtually every day for decades, he spent long hours trying to drag reluctant strangers to Aish HaTorah, nearby in the Old City, or further away to Ohr Somayach. In my two years in Ohr Somayach, one of our diversions was waiting to see what hirsute recruits Reb Meir would bring through the door next.
There was a second way in which Reb Meir's own ego was completely eradicated. Reb Meir was a very learned Jew. Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, the menahel of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, told me that they went through tractate after tractate over the three years they learned as afternoon chavrusos in Ner Israel.
Yet he never tried to make the "sale." That he left to others whom he felt could do a better job. He was content with the least glamorous stage of the process -- schlepping backpackers from the Kosel to someone else's shiur or "to meet a wise man." He never, in my observation, ever tried to do more. The goal was that the young backpackers meet the figure most likely to have an immediate impact, not that Reb Meir should have the satisfaction of being the one to convince them.
I FIRST encountered Reb Meir in the summer of 1976 as an ulpan student sitting on the lawn of Ulpan Etzion. How we laughed at the tall, thin figure in the unfamiliar black hat. Most ignored him or told him, sometimes rudely, that whatever he was selling they were not interested. But he walked away with a fellow Chicagoan, who went to yeshiva and has been the rav of a well-known moshav for nearly three decades.
I would guess that the percentage of those who responded positively to his entreaties to hear a class on Jewish philosophy or to meet a wise man was less than 20%, and that of those who did agree to attend a class, only a small fraction remained in yeshiva for more than a few hours. Yet he could not be deterred by rejection and never held up the white flag.
The appearance of an article about the early ba'al teshuva movement in the bible of the counter-culture Rolling Stone Magazine marked one of the milestones in the movement. Every student who entered any of the ba'alei teshuva yeshivas in the '70s or '80s read "Next Year in Jerusalem," Ellen Willis's account of her trip to Jerusalem to try to understand what happened to her brother Mike (Chaim) Willis, then a student at Aish HaTorah (and today director of Aish-South Africa.)
And how did Mike get to Aish HaTorah. After a couple years in Asia, he stopped in Israel on his way back home to New York. Reb Meir spotted him one morning at the Kosel and asked him whether he'd like to go to a yeshiva. Mike brushed him off. That afternoon, Reb Meir ran into Mike at the Central Bus Station and repeated his question. Again the response was negative. But when Reb Meir approached him for the third time that day in the Machane Yehudah shuk, Mike threw up his arms and joined him.
Once he had your address, you had a pen pal for life. If he met someone in Jerusalem who was working on a kibbutz, he would write them and on occasion even surprise them with a visit. His persistence wore down even the most obstinate, who sensed the passion that underlay his pursuit.
One young Jew fled Israel for Egypt, in part to avoid Reb Meir. When he turned on the TV in his hotel room, he was shocked to see a news report from the Kosel, in which Reb Meir gaunt figure could be clearly discerned. The same exact thing happened when he got to Spain. At that point, he knew that he could run but he could not hide from Reb Meir.
A young man learning at Harvard Business School was brought to speak to Reb Noach. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, he said, "Rabbi, do you believe it G-d? Do you actually believe that G-d spoke to the Jewish people?" Reb Noach answered both questions in the affirmative, which provoked the young man to blurt out, "It's amazing, we've been talking for fifteen minutes, and I could have sworn that you were an intelligent man."
Rather than get angry, Reb Noach asked."Who brought you to the yeshiva? I want to give a medal to the person who could convince someone who thinks only a moron could believe in G-d to set foot inside a yeshiva." The Harvard student replied that no medal was necessary.
He told Reb Noach that he was then involved with a young woman from Sweden, and as he was standing at the Kosel he had uttered the following tentative prayer: "G-d, I want You to know I have nothing against You, I just don't happen to think You exist. But if you do, please give me a sign. At that precise moment, he felt a tap on the shoulder. He jumped, and when he turned around to see who had tapped him, he saw a tall figure with a straw hat and his coat draped over his shoulders in the summer heat.
"Would you like to go to a yeshiva?" Reb Meir asked.
"What's a yeshiva?" the business student replied
"A place where you learn about G-d."
When he heard that, the young Jew had to admit that the consanguinity of events made it pretty hard to deny that he had just received the Divine sign he had sought.
That story, with minor variations, repeated itself many times over the years. Over twenty years ago, I wrote a feature about Reb Meir in which I included a similar story. I gave the article to a friend whom I knew was close to Reb Meir. When I looked back in my rearview mirror, I saw that my friend – who has been in full-time learning for 35 years – was crying. "That story about the guy at the Kosel asking for a sign – that was me," he explained.
There are thousand of Jews who are only shomrei Torah u'mitzvos today because Rabbi Meir Schuster found them, and their descendants number in the tens of thousands.
No story better captures the passion that drove Reb Meir than one that took place when he was sitting shiva for a three-year old daughter who had been struck by a truck. As Shabbos drew near, the thought that there would be wandering Jews at the Kosel on leil Shabbos and he would not be there gave Reb Meir no rest. In his eyes, they were like drowning brothers whom he must do everything possible to save.
Reb Meir felt that his being there on leil Shabbos to find Shabbos hosts for them was a matter of pikuach nefesh. The question was brought to the posek hado, HaGaon Ha Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. He said that Reb Meir was right, but the community would not understand, and therefore he must remain sitting shiva.
They would not understand, for who else lived to the same degree with the consciousness that bringing Jews into a connection with the Ribbono shel Olam through Torah is literally lifesaving work.