One day, when Meir Schuster and his friend were in their early twenties, they had just finished praying at the Western Wall. They watched other young people going to the Wall and being lit up by the experience. And the thought struck both of them at the same time: Why can’t someone connect with all these people and bring them closer to their heritage? They noticed one young backpacker leaning against the wall and crying. They watched as he composed himself, and started walking away from his moving encounter.
That was the moment of epiphany: this fellow had nowhere to go with the feelings that had just emerged. Rabbi Schuster’s friend walked over to the young man, gently tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Hi, I’m Chaim Kass – I hope we are not bothering you, but it looks like something happened for you there. Can we introduce you to learn some more about Judaism?” This young man’s reaction was one of appreciation, and they introduced him to a rabbi with whom he could study a little Torah.
The two young yeshiva students were captivated by this experience, and they started going back every afternoon during their breaks to speak with more young people. They connected with a dozen more people in the first two weeks, inviting some to come to Meir Schuster’s house for a Shabbos meal. Seeing the impact he could make in connecting young Jews to their heritage, Meir Schuster took over completely, and he continued doing this for the next 40 years.
Day in, day out, feeling sick, with a sprained ankle, in the hottest weather and the coldest, in the rain and in the snow, wanting to share his love for Judaism with his fellow Jew, Meir Schuster was there. He did this out of pure kindness, receiving no monetary payment.
People think they need to be a charismatic charmer to be successful at reaching people, but it was Rabbi Schuster’s pure earnestness that found its way into another’s heart gently and directly. Rabbi Schuster would typically ask both men and women if they wanted to attend a class or come for a Shabbos meal. He would remain in touch with as many individuals he met that he could, sending cards of encouragement that managed to make major impacts – even thousands of miles away. As one friend said, “No one cared more deeply about a soul than Rabbi Meir Schuster.”
It is 1976. The man who was to become my husband was praying at the Kotel. Larry had finished his time in a kibbutz ulpan, and was still volunteering in a development town in the Negev when he decided to spend the weekend in Jerusalem. He was scheduled to return to the States a few weeks later, with no clear plans. Larry put a note in a crevice in the Wall and then prayed sincerely to find his path in life. When he finished, there was a tap on his shoulder. It was Rabbi Schuster, asking him, “Do you have the time?” Thank G-d, Larry did have the time, and he followed Reb Meir to a yeshiva for baalei teshuva where he began the process of finding his life’s path. After nine years of learning and teaching at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah, young wandering Larry became Rabbi Aryeh Goetz.
It is 1978, and after completing my first year of medical school, I was volunteering on the oncology ward at Hadassah Hospital, visiting with patients who were dying, while my secret mission was to learn the purpose of living. During my first few days in Israel, I went to the Kotel, and Reb Meir Schuster found me there. His purity and his sincerity came right into my heart. I began to study with Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, and at the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, as the process of understanding the purpose of living began for me as well.
It is 1979, and every torch is lit on the menorah beside the Kotel, as it is the eighth night of Chanukah. My soon-to-be husband is sitting near me on a bench in the Kotel plaza. He tells me that on the eighth day of Chanukah, the spiritual potential for dedication is at its greatest. He wants to know if, on this night full of the power of dedication, I would agree to be his partner in life, so we could continue our separate journeys together.
In the 1980’s, seeing that there were only youth hostels run by Muslims or Christians in the Old City, Reb Meir became determined to create a Jewish youth hostel where young Jewish men and women could stay and learn about Judaism in a warm and relaxed atmosphere. This unlikely speaker then became a fundraiser, establishing the men’s and women’s Heritage House, and traveling around the world for three months a year.
Then, beginning in 2000, after terrorist attacks in Israel were on the rise and tourism dropped off substantially, Rabbi Schuster established the Shorashim Heritage Centers for young Israelis in several locations throughout Israel. Over 50,000 young Israelis have attended classes at these centers already.
Meir Schuster, in a way, brings to mind the greatest and the most humble leader of the Jewish people, Moses, who was determined to overcome his most glaring weakness of being a shy and awkward speaker in order to fulfill his role for the Jewish people. Meir Schuster’s wife said that she saw how her husband went against all odds to do what he did for years after year.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, said that if Rabbi Meir Schuster, who was by nature an extremely shy individual, could rise above his limitations to reach out to help so many Jewish people reconnect with their heritage, then anyone – no matter how shy or reserved he was – could do it. He is a model who can inspire everyone to pursue his deepest goals, even if he doesn’t think he has “the right stuff.”
“When he decided to do something, he believed that the Almighty would help him, and he wouldn’t give up until the end,” Rebbetzin Schuster said.
Two years ago, Rabbi Schuster began to develop Lewy Body Disease, a rare degenerative disorder whose symptoms are those of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. His wife said that “when he was barely able to even walk anymore, he still wanted to go to England to raise funds for the Heritage House. He is a real fighter. Nothing could stand in his way because every action he did, he did for a Divine purpose.”
As the disease began stealing away his ability to think and remember and communicate, he redoubled his efforts.
Rabbi Michel Twerski describes Rabbi Meir Schuster as “an unpretentious, self-effacing legend of our time. A rare figure of history who has touched so many lives through his profound authenticity.” And he couldn’t care less about any recognition for himself.
Today he can no longer be the man beside the beloved Wall. He came to require full-time care from his devoted wife and daughter at home, and is now in a nursing facility connected to a feeding tube.
Rabbi Meir Schuster has never cared about wealth, power, or prestige. He devoted his life to the simplest form of reaching out to ignite another’s inner spark, showing us what one person who really cares about the Jewish people can do.
Rabbi Schuster passed away Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 17th of Adar 1, 5774. May his soul be bound to the bond of eternal life.