Rav Meir Schuster: The Man at The Wall, zt”l
by Bracha Goetz
It was almost time for Shabbos.
There were a number of things I still needed to do, but it was hard for me to stop reading the stories that were just then being collected about Rabbi Meir Schuster, who, in his late sixties, had become very ill with a degenerative illness known as Lewy Body Disease, which combines the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. The stories collected are all about what Reb Meir did with his own life, and the many, many lives that he helped transform. An intensity in my heart was building with each word I read, and I was transported back, over thirty years ago.
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 will agree to be his partner in life, so we can continue our separate journeys together.
Reb Meir is there, too, on the night when my husband asked me to marry him. We both see him at the same moment. He is looking for more and more lost neshamas, waiting to be found, including those who, like us, will be blessed to find each other too.
Reb Meir has been with us ever since, as well, helping us raise our children to strive for the simple purity that he offered both of us. From our oldest son who has opened the Yeshiva High School of Arizona, to our youngest daughter, who was a madrecha in the Heritage House that Reb Meir established, Reb Meir’s pure idealism has gotten infused into our children’s lives. His gentle tap has even come to be felt by all the grandchildren that have also now blessed our lives, thank G-d.
And we were only two of the tens of thousands of neshamas that Reb Meir helped lead to the spiritual wellsprings craved. The ripples spreading out from all the neshamas he effected, are not possible to count. Not in this world. The reach of this one humble man is endless.
From what I learned from reading about Reb Meir, his parents were survivors of the Holocaust from Poland, and they were not observant, although Reb Meir’s grandmother still was. Stanley, as he was known then, was brought up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and attended public school there. When Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Twerski opened a Talmud Torah in Milwaukee, through his bubbie’s gentle urging, her grandson, Meir Tzvi, known to everyone else as Stanley Schuster, became one of its first students. Rabbi Twerski was devoted to being m’karev Reb Meir, and he helped young Meir Schuster catch up in his Hebrew studies.
Rabbi Twerski recalled Reb Meir’s tremendous thirst for learning about Judaism, and he said that he used to daven and bentch with such tremendous fervor, soon after he learned how, that it inspired all around him. He remembered when “Stanley” at the age of 14, with his parents’ consent, went off to learn in yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois. He had already become a masmid (very devoted Torah learner) and from there, he went on to learn in Yeshiva Ner Israel in Baltimore, Maryland, where he studied for seven years, and got semicha.
At Ner Israel, he was known for being an extremely dedicated student and for doing a semi-speech fast on Shabbos, only speaking words of Torah. According to his friends, Reb Meir was an excellent listener, but a very quiet person who spoke very little, not wanting to speak one superfluous word. He was just about the last person any of them would have imagined going into the field of kiruv.
Reb Meir was always on the look-out for ways to do chesed and help others, and always with his great big, warm smile. Reb Meir also took on a job that was definitely not sought after, of going around to awaken his fellow students. He would faithfully walk through the dorms every morning, calling in Yiddish repeatedly and with such pure earnestness, “Wake up, Wake up – it’s time to serve Hashem.”
After Reb Meir got married, he and his wife, Esther, moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1968. They came with two suitcases , and intended to stay for a year, while Reb Meir learned in the Mir Yeshiva. He never went back to America until many years later, after he had established the Heritage House, and needed to raise funds for it. (No wonder he was able to encourage thousands of others to stay in Eretz Yisroel longer too!)
Reb Chaim Kass, a good friend of Reb Meir’s, who now runs two health food stores in Lakewood, NJ, said that one day he was learning with Reb Meir the story of how the Netziv of Volozhin realized that he wasn’t reaching his true greatness and how he struggled to be granted the siyata d’Shmaya (Divine assistance) to fulfill his potential. Reb Chaim said that this story resonated very deeply with Reb Meir.
The next day they were davening together at the Kotel and they watched 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 these people and bring them closer to yiddishkeit?” And then they both noticed this one young fellow with a backpack on. He was leaning against the wall and crying. They watched as he composed himself, and starting walking away from his holy encounter. That was the moment of epiphany when they both realized that this fellow had nowhere to go with the feelings that had just emerged. Reb Chaim walked over to him 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 some real Judaism?” This young man’s reaction was one of appreciation, and they introduced him to a rabbi with whom he could learn.
Both Reb Chaim and Reb Meir were captivated by this experience and they started going back every afternoon during their breaks from yeshiva to speak with more young men. They connected with about 15 young men in the first two weeks, bringing some back to Reb Meir’s house for a Shabbos seuda. At first it was Reb Chaim doing the talking, but then Reb Meir started taking over. He started doing it, and he began to do it very well, as if this was natural for him. After those two weeks, Reb Meir 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, as a pure chesed, receiving no monetary payment, he was there. Being soaking wet for hours was of no importance to Reb Meir because he was searching with the utmost determination for any neshamas he could possibly tap that were ripe for finding fulfillment.
As one of the neshamas he discovered put it, “and he did all this for 40 years – not with a silver tongue – but by being real. And ‘real’ trumps a silver tongue every time.” People think they need to be a charismatic charmer to be successful at reaching people, but it was Reb Meir’s pure earnestness that found it’s way into another’s heart gently and directly. Reb Meir would typically ask both men and women if they wanted to attend a class or come for a Shabbos meal. He would often wait after class for the person or come back the next day to get his feedback. He would travel on several buses to help someone collect their things so that it would be easier for her to return for more studies. 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 who was “pursued” by Reb Meir for years and years said, “No one cared more deeply about a soul than Reb Meir Schuster.”
Reb Meir, in a way, brings to mind Moshe Rabeinu, 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. His wife said that Reb Meir’s most over-riding characteristic was his unwavering belief in syata d’Shmaya – the unimaginable assistance that is possible from the Soul of Souls. She saw how her husband went against all odds to do what he did. Rav Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, agreed, saying that if Reb Meir could do kiruv, then anyone – no matter how shy or reserved they are – could do kiruv. As such, he was a model that inspired a generation of others who didn’t think they had ‘the right stuff’ to pursue kiruv.
Rebetzin Schuster also said “when he decided to do something, he did it ‘od ha sof.’ – he wouldn’t give up until the end. 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 l’shem shomyaim (for a Divine purpose). And he never got involved in any kind of politics.”
The souls who descend into this world spend most of their time on earth being distracted from their true purpose by getting pulled down by the concerns of this physical and transient world. Reb Meir tried valiantly to never get distracted from his true purpose, and his wife got to witness this each singularly precious day, for 43 years. She said that as the disease began stealing away his ability to think and remember and communicate, he redoubled his efforts in learning – sitting with a Gemorah in his hands 8-10 hours a day, every day.
In the 1980’s, seeing that there were only youth hostels run by Moslems 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. if they didn’t want to go to a yeshiva. 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 collecting funds – when he wasn’t collecting Jewish people at the Wall, to gather them in closer. In its busiest years so far, 5,000 people a year got the chance to absorb the warm Jewish welcome that can still be found in a Heritage House experience.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, who worked with Reb Meir for over twenty years, expressed that, “There was never any let up in Rabbi Schuster’s burning intensity. Nothing could be left for tomorrow. ‘We have to do this right away,’ was one of his most repeated statements. The needs of Klal Yisrael were urgent – nothing could wait until tomorrow. And he sincerely felt that even this was not enough. I remember Reb Meir saying to me after two Yom Kippurs that he had done teshuva on the fact that he had not done enough, and that this year he was determined to do more. And then he would look at me with those intense eyes as if to say, “Nu, what are we waiting for. Let’s get cracking.”
“One day, during the Second Intifada, in 2000, when terrorist attacks were on the rise and tourism dropped off substantially, Reb Meir came barging in to my office. ‘The Americans are not coming’, he blurted out; ‘We have to deal with Israelis.’ I looked at him in astonishment. ‘Reb Meir’, I tried to gently explain, ‘You are not Israeli. I am not Israeli. We don’t understand their mentality. We barely speak Hebrew.’ Try to explain to Reb Meir that he shouldn’t do something… Today, the Shorashim Heritage Centers, first located directly under the Heritage House, have branches in several locations throughout Eretz Yisroel. About 1 000 Israelis every week come to hear classes, because Reb Meir just wouldn’t let up. 50,000 young Israelis have already come to one of the Shorashim Heritage Centers.”
“But it wasn’t just his intense determination that drove his success. This man had a coating of Siyata Dishmaya that hovered over his every move. Once, Rabbi Sender Chochomovitch, the Rosh Yeshiva of Binyan Olam, an organization for South Americans of significant scope, entered into negotiations with us to open up a hostel for Spanish speakers. ‘Why do you need us,’ I asked Rabbi Chochomovitch. ‘I need you’, he said, ‘because I want to tap into Reb Meir’s Siyata D’Shmaya’
“There were so many instances when this Siyata D’Shmaya was obvious. Once, there were two young South Africans who hung around the hotels for a few weeks before taking off to other countries. Six months later, one of them walked into my office. ‘I am learning in Aish HaTorah now,’ he proudly announced. And then he told me the following story: ‘I went to Egypt and I was watching TV. The issue was about Israel and they showed a scene from the Wall. And there, standing in front of the Wall, was Rabbi Schuster. So I fled to Turkey. But in Turkey the same thing happened.’ He proceeded to relate how he finally reached Spain, and was waiting at the bus station in Madrid to take him further afield. He had a few hours to spare and he started reflecting on the messages via TV he had received from Rabbi Schuster. He never took that bus. He went to the airport, flew to Israel and entered yeshiva.”
When a person spends time in the presence of someone who is very knowledgeable in any field, he does not become any more knowledgeable about the subject. When one is given the chance to simply be in the presence of a great baal emuna, however, one’s soul suddenly becomes infused with a greater emuna. That’s how one individual – Reb Meir – directly affected the lives of probably more than one hundred thousand people. Rabbi Michel Twerski describes Reb Meir as “an unpretentious, self-effacing legend of our time. A rare figure of history who touched so many lives through his profound authenticity.” And he could have cared less about any recognition for himself.
Reb Meir and his wife had three children, two daughters and a son. They lost one daughter years ago when she was killed by an Arab driver backing up a truck. He kept on fulfilling his mission, unwavering in his emuna. A few years ago, in his mid-sixties, while still going strong and with many more goals that he hoped to pursue, Reb Meir began to develop Lewy Body Disease. He could no longer be the man beside the beloved Wall. He soon required full-time care from his devoted wife and daughter at home, and then Reb Meir moved into a nursing home facility where his wife spent her days with him.
My daughter, Shira, who worked at the Heritage House, told me that when she was blessed to get to see Reb Meir a few years ago, he was still able to get around, with assistance, at that time, but the Alzheimer’s-like symptoms of his disease had already progressed to the point where he seemed to be unable to remember or speak. Reb Meir still only wanted to be of help, however, if it was at all possible, as he tried mightily, and repeatedly, to remain useful in any way he could. He was even trying to help my daughter lift the big bag of laundry that she was loading into a machine. What he still remembered was that he just wanted to be able to give. And my daughter said that what he also still had was his same warm “biggest smile in the whole world.”
It was getting late. I needed to pull myself away and stop reading the stories that were just then beginning to emerge about Reb Meir.
I hurried into the kitchen and saw my husband, almost ready to leave for shul. Through eyes getting blurry with the tears I was trying to hold in, I asked him, “How could this be happening to Reb Meir? How could it be? The pure emunah we absorbed from him…Meeting such an emesdik person as him, made it possible for us… And even though we were disillusioned later on by people not observing the Torah in an authentic way, it’s the inspiration of Reb Meir’s initial purity and humility that left the greatest imprint on us …That’s what kept us going …This humble, gentle soul… ”
“How could this be happening to him now? How can it be?” I searched in the eyes of the man who became my husband and who has shared this amazing journey through life with me, and suddenly there was an answer that over thirty years of a widening perspective has made possible.
“Oh, now I see!” I gasped to my husband. “Reb Meir, who didn’t care about wealth, power, or prestige, and who devoted his life to the simplest form of kiruv, is now able to deliver the most penetrating kiruv message of all – through this rare illness that took over, not only his body, but also his mind. Unable to speak, Reb Meir’s message was not wavering. It is still able to enter our hearts. How can it be that a goodness with such earnestness like Reb Meir and his devoted family could have this be the end result of all of those selfless decades of effort? How can it be? It can’t be the end!!!”
“Reb Meir is leading us to see – perhaps clearer than ever – that this short life we have on earth cannot possibly be all there is. There has got to be infinitely more – in the invisible spiritual realm that our physical eyes can’t see, but our souls know. Reb Meir, even while so ill, was still re-directing us to the deepest and purest emes.”
It was almost time for Shabbos. The Shabbos that so many might have never known if not for him.
A taste of the World-to-Come.
“Do you have the time?” he asked us simply. Thank G-d, we all did, and we still do. He is no longer able to walk back and forth at the Kotel, searching for our neshamas, day and night. But he is still able to show us the way to go in life.
What just one person can do on this Earth – he has demonstrated. And literally, or figuratively, we all got tapped by the man with a mission.
Reb Meir showed us how to tap into our own inner invincible spark, so that we could continue to brighten the world with illumination.
It’s time to light.
Bracha Goetz is the author of 24 Jewish children’s books, including Let’s Stay Safe, Let’s Stay Pure and The Invisible Book.
If you would like to make a donation to the Heritage House in memory of Reb Meir, here is the site.