Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One of a Kind

Rabbi Meir Schuster, ZTL
Rabbi Meir Schuster founded Heritage House 26 years ago to provide warm and comfortable accommodations for Jewish travelers in the heart of the Old City. Jewish travelers from all over the world are welcomed and given a place to stay for a nominal fee. We have plenty of information and opportunities to experience what Israel has to offer.
Heritage House has given thousands of Jewish young adults their first Jewish experience and has helped so many others make aliyah and find their place in Israel.
The Heritage House is more than just a place to stay...it is a place for Jews from all over the world to come together and have an opportunity to learn what lies behind the fabric of their heritage. It gives people an opportunity to grow where they might not have anywhere else. 
These 3 simple paragraphs from his website seem to sum up the essence of someone I never met but have admired from afar. I am not in the habit of eulogizing people that I never met or know little about. But I am making an exception here because he was unique, inspiring, and humble in his tremendous accomplishments. Rabbi Meir Schuster was famous for finding young Jews at the Kotel who were seeking meaning in their lives and tapping into their souls. Through his kind and gentle manner he was able to steer thousands of young Jews into finding their true heritage and destiny.

There have been several eulogies for him published on the internet.  One rather poignant one in Cross Currents by Mrs. Bracha Goetz whose journey into observant Judaism was precipitated and guided by Rabbi Schuster. But even more amazing is the eulogy by Shmarya Rosenberg of Failed Messiah.

Many people see Shmarya as being dedicated to smearing Orthodox Jews. Especially those on the right. I can certainly understand why people might think that. But it is perhaps because of that perception that makes his eulogy in some ways even more poignant than Mrs. Goetz’s. That’s because even though he inserts his anti Kiruv perspective into it, his praise and warmth for the man he once worked for - comes through.

When anti Kiruv people like Shmarya say good things about an individual whose very essence is Kiruv, that says a lot. Here are some of the things he said (excluding the very unfortunate anti Kiruv portions):
Schuster founded and led the Heritage House youth hostels in Jerusalem's Old City, places where almost any non-Orthodox Jew (and some Modern Orthodox Jews) could stay for free six days a week. The only cost was sitting in on a class or two in the hostel and/or at a local ba'al teshuva yeshiva or seminary. (To stay for Shabbat cost a modest amount of money, but that bought you two home cooked meals with haredi families and a third meal Shabbat afternoon in the hostel.)
Schuster did what he did honestly, in the sense he truly believed in what he did and gave it his all, 24/7, week after week, month after month, year after year. There was no separate public Meir Schuster and private Meir Schuster. There was just one Meir Schuster and he was always on, always working, always thinking of himself last and his own family second to last.
Other people in the kiruv business grow to head large organizations and spend much of their time in their office and fundraising and little, if any, actual time doing kiruv.
Schuster had a large organization but he spent almost no time in its – or in any other – office. (I worked for him for about a year, doing advertising, public relations and serving as the men's hostel's night manager, so I can attest to this personally.) Schuster spent all day (and large parts of many nights) on his feet at the Kotel, on Ben Yehuda Street, or wherever young non-Orthodox English speaking Jews were likely to be. When he found these "kids" (as they were known in the business), he didn't pretend to be one of them. He wore his dusty black hat and his dark (pinstripped, if I recall) suit. He was always a rabbi, even when and where being a rabbi was not cool.
Meir Schuster was both a pioneer and… an upright man, a person who truly believed with all his heart and soul in what he was doing and how he was doing it.
If I had to sum up Schuster's life in a brief sentence I would say this: Meir Schuster wanted Jews to be Jews and he wanted all Jews to study Torah and do mitzvot; for him, beyond this there really was nothing else. 
What a fitting tribute.

Rabbi Schuster suffered from Lewy Body Dementia which combines symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. When I see good people suffer like that, it always raises the ultimately unanswerable question of Tzadik V’ Ra Lo. Why does God in his infinite wisdom choose good people in the world to suffer so much?! I always used to feel so angered by how unfair this seemed.

But my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, taught me by example  how to deal with this issue. He too was a good man who suffered. In the spring of1983, he had a stroke that paralyzed him on the left side of his body until the end of his life in the fall of 2001. He could not control the use of his left hand and he could only walk with tremendous pain, which forced him to be confined to a wheelchair most of the time.  But he never expressed any self pity. He never changed his pace. He never changed his mission in life of teaching Torah and commuted weekly from his home in Chicago to New York to give Shiurim in Yeshiva University.

When he was asked about why he thought God gave him this challenge, he answered that the pain he constantly felt were Yisurim Shel Ahava. Rav Ahron accepted his lot in life as a gift from God in the same sense that the Tanna, Rebbe Akiva did when he was tortured to death by his Roman captors. 

Rebbe Akiva called the pain of his torture ‘Yisurim Shel Ahava’ – pains of love.  Rebbe Akiva always wanted to fulfill that part of the Shema that said you should love God with all of your soul. That could be done best under truly adverse conditions. Having  always wondered if he would ever be able to fulfill this Mitzva, he was grateful at the end of his life for being given the opportunity to suffer in that way.  

That is how Rav Ahron saw his pain. And my guess is that this is how Rabbi Meir Schuster saw his. Zecher Tzadik L'Vracha.