Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l

On Monday 17 Adar I, a neshamah that exerted its last ounce of strength while here in this transitory world bringing tens of thousands of neshamos to their soul-roots was returned to the t’zror hachaim with the petirah of Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l, after a long illness.

Reb Meir was a legend in his own time. He carved himself a niche in the annals of the kiruv movement as an incredibly effective recruiter for a wide array of yeshivos l’chozrim b’teshuvah, women’s seminaries and kiruv programs.

And while he mustered new soldiers for the milchemes Hashem in a variety of eclectic venues including shopping malls, Yerushalayim’s Central Bus Station and Ben Yehuda Street, he was most identified with the Kosel Hamaaravi where he was known as the rabbi who “picked them off the Wall.”

When the first Beis Hamikdash was established by Shlomo Hamelech he offered “the One who caused His Name to dwell in this house” an all-encompassing, lyrical and soaring tefillah that the Mikdash become the conduit to convey all tefillos, of Jew and non-Jew alike, from around the world, to Heaven (I Melachim 8). Due to lack of education and/or lack of acumen, not every person has access to Torah but, as every human being has personal needs and every community has collective needs, everybody, without exception, can and must put those needs into words and daven. So it comes as no surprise that the Kosel Hamaaravi, the only remnant of the Mikdash compound, exerts an irresistible magnetic pull on everyone.

On 7 Iyar 1931, during his return voyage from Eretz Yisrael, the Imrei Emes of Ger, Harav Avraham Mordechai Alter, zy”a, expressed it this way — “Oznayim laKosel — this Wall has ‘ears’ to hear all our tefillos and innermost wishes!” His words proved prescient. Since its liberation from Arab control during the Six-Day War in 5727, the Kosel has pulled Jews from every conceivable background and from every corner of Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora.

The goals of tefillah and teshuvah are essentially one: to stand, or to stand once again, in Hashem’s presence. The physical survival of the Kosel is miraculous, but that it would become more than the tel talpiyos, “the mound towards which all mouths turn for prayer,” but also the locus of our era’s great teshuvah awakening, was only natural. After the Kosel’s liberation the only question remaining was, who would facilitate the Kosel’s natural magnetic pull on tortured consciences and on hearts searching for their own unsullied inner core? The answer that history provided was: Rabbi Meir Schuster.

Sadly, for many, the inspiration and turbulent emotions that their visit to the Kosel evoked were ephemeral and basically disappeared as soon as they left the Kosel plaza. But, for fortunate thousands, Reb Meir served as an electromagnet, turning up the current of their Kosel inspiration, channeling and amplifying it until it became solidified and lasting in mosdos haTorah that catered to late beginners — such as Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, D’var Yerushalayim, Neve Yerushalayim and Heritage House, to name just a few.

Extending warm and heartfelt invitations, cajoling and persuading, he brought countless tinokos shenishbu out of the captivity of dominant-cultural imperialism and Torah-ignorance and carried them through the portals of the spiritual treasure-troves, to be exposed to the truth and beauty of Torah so they could reclaim their lost heritage.

Rabbi Schuster with fellow kiruv workers: Jeff Seidel (center) and  Moshe Mendlowitz (right).
Rabbi Schuster with fellow kiruv workers: Jeff Seidel (center) and Moshe Mendlowitz (right).

Chazal teach that even after the Churban Beis Hamikdash, the Shechinah never budged from the Kosel; between 1968, when he moved from Baltimore to Eretz Yisrael, and until the onset of his illness, almost the same could be said of Rabbi Meir Schuster.

Who was this mild-mannered hero, and what was the secret of his success?

Meir Schuster was born in Milwaukee in 1943 to Holocaust survivors. At first he attended public school, but his religious Bubby encouraged him to switch to a local Talmud Torah, newly opened by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. There, Reb Meir first developed his tremendous yearning for limud haTorah and tefillah. At the age of 14 he enrolled in the Beis Medrash l’Torah-Skokie Yeshivah for his Mesivta education. After graduating, he moved on to Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore where, seven years later, he received semichah.

After his marriage in 1968, he and his wife Esther came to Eretz Yisrael where he continued learning in Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim. Leaving America, they had packed just two suitcases, as they were only planning on staying for one year.

One day he and his long-time chavrusa, Rabbi Chaim Kass, davened at the Kosel, where they noticed one young fellow wearing a backpack, leaning against the Wall, his eyes filled with tears. The thought struck them both: “Why can’t someone connect with all these Jews whose neshamos are lit up by their Kosel experience and bring them closer to Yiddishkeit?” That was how Reb Meir got his start. The rest is history.

Rabbi Yisroel Rokowsky, Rosh Yeshivah of Ohr Somayach in Monsey, spoke with this writer about Rabbi Meir Schuster. “He was a very shy, reserved, self-effacing person. Knowing him as a young man one would say that he was not likely to succeed at salesmanship. Yet he became the most successful mekarev of all time, bringing more students to all the baal teshuvah yeshivos than any other individual [or] mosad. He succeeded because ‘es is em ungegangen in leben,’ to him it was a matter of his own life or death.”

He illustrated this with a story he heard from one of Reb Meir’s shutfim in kiruv, Harav Noach Weinberg, zt”l.

A Jewish nursing-home owner in Baltimore did not maintain kosher kitchens in his facilities. Rav Noach told the man that since he had Jewish patients, what he was doing was assur al pi halachah and that he had to serve kosher food to his Jewish residents. One Jewish woman refused and insisted that she be served treife food. She threatened a discrimination suit and said she would go to the authorities. Realizing that his entire parnassah was at risk, the man, hardly a kiruv professional, influenced this woman to tzind licht, keep Shabbos and keep kosher.

“So it was with Reb Meir,” Rabbi Rakowsky concluded. “He viewed any Jew lost to Yiddishkeit as his own personal ruination.” A warm, leaping fire blazed in Reb Meir Schuster’s heart to save other neshamos from devastating assimilation. And his passion, conviction and determination persuaded and convinced others.

Rabbi Rokowsky told another story that illustrates Reb Meir’s deep-seated and sincere sense of urgency:

Tragically, the Schusters lost an 11-year-old daughter, killed by an Arab motorist. Reb Meir asked the following she’eilah of the posek hador, Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l: “Since the work that I do is pikuach nefashos, may I be excused from the chiyuv of sitting shivah for my daughter in order to return to the Kosel and bring young students to yeshivos and seminaries?”

Harav Elyashiv was astounded, but also deeply impressed, by the she’eilah. He replied, “B’etzem you are right. You should return to the Kosel. But it will seem bizarre — a milsa d’te’imah to the olam — that one would skip shivah for his own daughter.” To show his deep ha’arachah of Reb Meir’s sensibilities, Rav Elyashiv, the indefatigable masmid who rarely left his limudim even for personal and family considerations, came to be menachem avel at the home of the Schusters.

Perhaps his greatest innovation was the Heritage House. In the 1980s, most touring college student backpackers stayed at budget hotels or hostels. Glorified college dorms, these inns were poison for their neshamos. Seeking an alternative to hosting new recruits in their own or kollel apartments, Reb Meir came up with the idea of a youth hostel under frum auspices. He established separate youth hostels for young men and women in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, which became known as the Heritage House. There, young people could stay and learn about Judaism in a relaxed and warm atmosphere if they weren’t yet ready for yeshivah.

At the dedication ceremony for the first Aish HaTorah building, former Chief Rabbi Harav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l, declared that he envied Harav Noach Weinberg’s portion in Olam Haba. At the dedication’s conclusion, Harav Weinberg himself averred that he envied Reb Meir’s portion.

The levayah left Monday afternoon from Shamgar Funeral Home in Yerushalayim. The Roshei Yeshivah of Ohr Somayach were overseas and weren’t able to be maspid. In an effort to get to kevurah on Har Hazeisim before shekiah, brief hespeidim were given by Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, a Rav in Maalot Dafna; Harav Yirmiyahu Abramov, director of Ner L’Elef; Rabbi Ezra Klarberg, a son-in-law; and Rabbi Moshe Chalkowski, a principal at Neve Yerushalayim.

Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l, is survived by, tbl”ch, his wife, Rebbetzin Esther Schuster; his son, Reb Dovid; daughters Mrs. Chanie Klarburg and Miss Chaya Schuster; and grandchildren, all of whom are following in his ways. Shivah is at 4 Machal St., Apt. 4, ground floor. Aveilim may be reached by phone at 02-538-1884.

Yehi zichro baruch.

Parts of this tribute were adapted from previous Hamodia articles about Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l.

Personal Recollections

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.

As a child, Meir was a loner, withdrawn, not mingling with the other kids. He had an insatiable desire to learn.

I taught Meir the haftarah for his bar-mitzvah. This was not easy, because Meir was tone-deaf.

Occasionally, Meir would tell me that he hears voices, and that he was getting messages from Hashem. That was 30 years before I became a psychiatrist, but even then I knew that someone who hears voices must have a serious mental problem. I am not ashamed to admit that I subsequently came to believe that Meir was telling the truth; it was Hashem talking to him.

Nothing else explains the Meir Schuster phenomenon. If anyone who knew Meir then was told that one day he would fill the baal teshuvah yeshivos, they would think it absurd. Yet it happened, and there is no rational explanation for it other than Hashem blessed him with a unique chen, a charm that attracted people to him.

When I would come to the Kotel, I would see Meir at work, going up to a stranger and exchanging a few words, and the person followed him. Anyone else would have been told, “Beat it! Don’t bother me.” But there was something in Meir that attracted people, and it can only be the special chen that Hashem gave him.

Meir exuded genuine love for Torah and for all Jews. He wanted all Jews to be close to Hashem.

Anyone who knew Meir should consider themselves  privileged to have  known a true tzaddik.

By Rabbi Aaron Twerski

Rabbi Meir Schuster grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was not only a regular mispallel in my father’s, zt”l, shul but was a ben bayis in our home. He was the most shy and retiring person that one can imagine.

That a person with these personality traits turned out to be a pivotal person in kiruv in Eretz Yisrael  is close to unbelievable. At the same time, it teaches us that dedication and yiras  Shamayim can break all barriers. No one who knew him as a youngster could ever have predicted that he would become the person who returned hundreds if not thousands of alienated Jews to a Torah life.

I was told that when he lost a child and was sitting shivah, that Gedolei Yisrael were seriously considering telling him to return to the Kosel because his work in hatzalas nefashos was of such magnitude that it outweighed the aveilus.

Rabbi Schuster conversing with a young Jewish man at the Kosel Plaza.
Rabbi Schuster conversing with a young Jewish man at the Kosel Plaza.

My Dear Uncle, Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l

Rabbi Moshe Garfinkel

This past Monday morning we were in cheder and had just finished davening. We were about to start learning Chumash when there was a knock on the door and a small sealed note was handed to me. The message read: “Rabbi Garfinkel, your uncle Rabbi Meir Schuster was niftar. Baruch Dayan Emes.”

Before I had a chance to do anything or think about Uncle Meir and the sadness of his petirah, I had to start learning with the talmidim; we were about to start learning Parashas Vayikra.

We started learning about the korban olah and it dawned upon me that this was Uncle Meir. He was an olah temimah, pure and whole. He was the perfect example of a servant of Hashem. He was very famous for his 40 years of standing at the Kosel and bringing Yidden close to Hashem.

Over the years there were many articles in newspapers and magazines about his famous work. He was called “The Man of the Wall” because of this.

Still, there was another side to him, or rather another facet to this precious diamond. This was his connection to Hashem. He tried to hide it as much as possible, but he simply was not able.

When it came time to daven at the Kosel, the minyanim usually evolved by themselves. A group of people were standing together and someone went up to daven. If by chance this did not happen, Uncle Meir would show his true colors. He would create a minyan and then he would be the baal tefillah. His tefillos were full of regesh — true feeling. He would stretch out his hands to Hashem and raise his voice loud and clear. He would daven with deveikus and hislahavus.

We were zocheh to eat many seudos at the home of Uncle Meir and, tbl”c, Aunt Esther. They always had guests and the most beautiful seudos. There was always plenty of delicious food, and everyone was made to feel comfortable and at home. Aunt Esther served the meal royally and treated Uncle Meir like a king.

Uncle Meir, whose personality was generally on the quiet side, always went out of his way to speak to everyone. He asked questions and made conversation with all the participants, and always had a dvar Torah to share. Uncle Meir sang beautiful zemiros, similar to the way he davened, and the highlight of his seudos was his bentching. As tired as he was, especially on Friday nights after walking back from the Kosel and a full week of hard work, he put so much koach into his bentching. He would call out the words “Uvnei Yerushalayim ir hakodesh bimheirah biyameinu!” at the top of his lungs. He was a true eved Hashem — an olah temimah.

We learned a few more pesukim on that Monday morning, and we came to the olas ha’of — olah from the bird. The passuk says that the blood should be squeezed out on the wall of the mizbei’ach — al kir hamizbai’ach. My eyes found the Targum which says al kosel madbicha. Blood is spilled on the wall. Uncle Meir’s blood, his mesirus nefesh, was left on the Wall, the Kosel. For 40 years, rain or shine, in freezing sleet or burning heat, Uncle Meir was there bringing nefashos closer to Hashem. He was famous for his starting words to every visitor to the Kosel, “Perhaps you know what time it is?” As a joke, people would say that if you gave Rabbi Schuster a watch, he would be out of business, chas v’shalom.

He had an arrangement with many families around Yerushalayim; he would bring them guests for Shabbos seudos, without any previous notice. Thousands of Yidden around the world came to true Yiddishkeit through the efforts of Uncle Meir.

Many people did not know or believe that Uncle Meir and his family lived in Ezras Torah, which was a pretty long walk from the Kosel. Some people say that Uncle Meir had kefitzas haderech — that miraculously, it took very little time for him to walk the distance. Nevertheless, he did the walk a few times every Shabbos in every type of weather for many years. His blood, his mesirus nefesh, are now and forever part of the holy Kosel Hamaaravi.

The life of Uncle Meir was 71 years. He was a man who had a mission and he accomplished it. Fortunate are those who saw him in action — they saw real Yiddishkeit and avodas Hashem. It will be a great zechus for his neshamah if we learn from him and follow in his ways.

The word “passion” could explain a big part of his success. Uncle Meir had a fire burning in him. He loved Hashem so much that he wanted to share his love with other Yidden. My dear cousin Rabbi Eli Garfinkel told me that he heard from chashuve people that Uncle Meir was the Avrohom Avinu of our time.

May Uncle Meir, zt”l, be a meilitz yosher for Aunt Esther, their children and grandchildren, his many talmidim and all of Klal Yisrael.

What Was Rabbi Meir Schuster’s ‘Magic’?

By Mordechai Schiller

For years, I wondered, what’s the secret to the success of Reb Meir Schuster, zt”l?

He didn’t fit the standard job description for a “kiruv professional.” He didn’t exude charisma. He was not a man of words. He hardly talked at all.

To call him a kiruv professional would be the equivalent of calling the first hiker who ever made a splint an EMT. Or like calling the first person to jump into a river to rescue someone from drowning a lifeguard.

Reb Meir didn’t invent kiruv. There were well-established yeshivos and organizations reaching out to unaffiliated Jews. Reb Meir, himself, was a rebbi in Ohr Somayach. But he was the first person I know of who threw himself into full-time emergency kiruv rescue. He was a one-man Hatzolah volunteer without an ambulance. His ambulance was his heart. And he left the motor running.

Soon, Reb Meir was constantly patrolling — at the Kosel or at the central bus station — on virtual 24/7 watch for youth at risk. (That was before the term “at risk” gained currency. To Reb Meir, the risk to spiritual life and limb was as real as a terror bombing.) And when he got his “patients” on his “stretcher” he transported them to the nearest “hospital.” Or, to be more accurate, some inner sense told him which facility was best equipped to handle a particular spiritual ailment.

So, even though he was a rebbi at Ohr Somayach, Reb Meir would send students to other yeshivos, if he felt that was what they needed. When I asked him how he knew where to send someone, he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I might as well have asked him how he knew which hand to eat with. He just knew.

In computer technology, there is a term “platform agnostic.” It refers to a program that is compatible with many different platforms or operating systems. Reb Meir was platform agnostic when it came to yeshivos. He used them all. All that mattered was saving souls. And he eventually became a one-man rescue operation. Even staffers who dedicatedly worked with him were basically an extension of Reb Meir Schuster.

Reb Meir’s classic opening line was, “Do you have the time?” Often as not, his own watch was clearly visible when he asked the question. But once he caught you, it was impossible to shake him loose. Like a tireless lifeguard, no amount of kicking and screaming could break his grip.

And Reb Meir didn’t just leave his subjects at the yeshivah door. Once he rescued them, he felt responsible for their lives. He followed up on a regular basis and made sure they got the help they needed. And the help always started with a free lunch.

For a while, I gave an introductory Mishnayos shiur at Ohr Somayach. Since it was geared for beginners, and since it came right after lunch, I got a regular stream of guys “off the Wall,” brought in by Reb Meir. Before long, the demographics reached the tipping point and it was mostly new guys every day. To accommodate the mix of Mishnayos learners and new recruits, I switched from maseches Gittin to Pirkei Avos, which would allow anyone to join in the discussion. Reb Meir kept tabs on everyone’s progress.

Along the way, he made a seder with me in Mishnah Berurah. I said he was trying to be mekarev me. He just flashed a huge smile. But he wouldn’t say if I was right or wrong.

We started learning at Ohr Somayach, but then switched to the Kosel. Every minute and a half, he would jump up to rescue some guy with long hair and a backpack. Since I had neither, and they were more amenable to doing teshuvah, the seder gave way to full-time rescue.

Dealing with him day after day, I still couldn’t figure out what magic he had. How did he get all these guys to “taste and see that Torah is good”?

I finally got my answer one Friday night at the Kosel. We met at the same minyan for Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv. I happened to turn in his direction as he was saying Shema.

And then I saw it. His head and then his whole body began to shake in spasms of fervor as he davened.

That was it. There was no technique. No magic. He was total emes. And the magnetic pull into his world of emes was irresistible. It was nothing he did. It was who he was. And he cannot be replaced.

Yehi zichro baruch.

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