June 21, 2024
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Trading in Backpacks for Torah

Highlighting: A Tap on the Shoulder by Yonoson Rosenblum. ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications. 2021. English. Hardcover. ISBN: 9781422628423

Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. Neshamah after neshamah—Rabbi Meir Schuster was at the Kosel, the Central Bus Station, the Hebrew University campus, searching for people who were searching for meaning—and bringing them to places where they would find it.

He was the most unlikely of outreach professionals. He was shy, tongue-tied, inarticulate and decidedly “uncool.” And yet, more than almost anyone, he brought Jews—thousands, perhaps tens of thousands—back to their Torah heritage.

“A Tap on the Shoulder” brings us the stories (so many stories!) of the young men and women who traded their backpacks for Torah. It brings to life the decades when searching youth found meaning and a “baal teshuva movement” was born.

“A Tap on the Shoulder” shows us how one man—with absolute dedication, boundless caring and almost unbelievable siyata d’Shmaya—can change the world. One neshama at a time.

Shalom Schwartz’s story provides a good example of Reb Meir’s strategy of keeping the initial conversation going as long as possible. One could never know from where the winning argument might emerge, especially since it might have nothing to do with a sudden desire to learn about Torah.

Shalom was near the end of a six-month stint on a kibbutz ulpan, when the group from the ulpan came to Jerusalem. As the group boarded the bus after a stop at the Kotel, Shalom realized his “buddy” was not there and went back to the Kotel to fetch him. He found his friend engaged in conversation with a tall man in a black hat.

He signaled to his friend that the bus was waiting and he should break off the conversation. At that point, Reb Meir, whose back had been to Shalom, suddenly turned around and started to throw out questions to Shalom: “Where are you from? Have you ever heard of Yeshiva Ner Israel’s Toronto branch? Do you know where Fitch Avenue is?”

“Excuse me, we have a bus waiting for us. Sorry, no time to talk,” Shalom answered curtly.

And to the question about Fitch Avenue: “Yes, I do know where Fitch Avenue is, but that doesn’t make me any more interested in what you are selling?”

“I’m not selling anything,” Rabbi Schuster responded. “I was just telling your friend that if he is planning to be in Jerusalem for a few days, he can stay in a yeshiva for free and listen to a class or two on Jewish philosophy.”

Now, he had caught Shalom’s attention. Shalom was planning to stay in Jerusalem for another few days, and had been told that morning that another group was scheduled to arrive at the hostel where he was staying and there would be no room for him.

“What’s the catch?” Shalom wanted to know.

“No catch. Just a chance to learn something about Judaism.”

Shalom still hesitated, but Reb Meir wrote out a note with his name and phone number and handed it to him. That evening, after every hostel he called turned out to be full, Shalom had no choice but to contemplate Reb Meir’s offer. And the offer itself triggered a series of reflections in his mind. “One of the reasons I came to Israel in the first place,” he thought to himself, “was to figure out this Jewish thing. What is my relationship to the empty religious identity that has been such a confusing burden until now? Do I want to jettison the whole thing?”

Reluctantly, he called Reb Meir, and arranged to meet him at the Damascus Gate the next morning at 8:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, he was at Shema Yisrael, listening to Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s 48 Ways class and hearing “inspiring wisdom I never knew existed in Judaism.”

After three days, he went to his kibbutz to complete the ulpan, but with the intention of returning to the yeshiva for a couple of weeks once the ulpan concluded. While on the kibbutz, he received a letter from Rabbi Schuster reminding him of his commitment to return.

In the end, those two weeks at Shema Yisrael extended to three months. Shalom was one of the handful of students who followed Reb Noach from Shema Yisrael to Aish HaTorah. He remained at Aish for seven years, only leaving to head the group that started the extraordinary successful Aish branch in his native Toronto. And after that, he directed Aish HaTorah’s kiruv efforts in the former Soviet Union for nearly a decade.

Josh Epstein, who ran the Heritage House men’s hostel for more than three years, once had the opportunity to run a controlled experiment to ascertain the basis for Rabbi Schuster’s success. Adam arrived at the Heritage House just before Rosh Hashanah of 2000. The Second Intifada had just broken out and Heritage House was almost empty, so the staff had plenty of time to devote to Adam, who described himself as a devout atheist. Adam was both very smart and more than happy to engage in debate.

He turned down all suggestions that he go for a class or two in a yeshiva—or one of those “lame establishments” in his lexicon. The next morning, Yaakov, whom Epstein describes as “the most cheerful positive Jew on the face of the planet,” again encouraged Adam to attend a lecture or two. But the latter told him that he was not interested and was headed to the Israel Museum for the day.

Adam was sitting downstairs near the front gate with Josh when Rabbi Schuster walked in. Rabbi Schuster asked him where he was going for the day. Adam said that he was thinking of going to the Israel Museum. “No, you should go and check out a class at the yeshiva,” Reb Meir told him. To which Adam responded meekly, “Okay, that sounds like a good idea.”

When Adam returned that evening, he was filled with excitement. The yeshiva was, in his words, “awesome. I had a blast, and I’m going back tomorrow.”

At least three different staff members had made the same suggestion without stirring a trace of interest. How had Rabbi Schuster turned Adam around in the space of a one-minute conversation? Josh put the question directly to Adam, and the latter was able to clearly articulate Rabbi Schuster’s power: “I have never met anyone in my life with such a passion for something, such a love. I have to find out what this guy is so excited about.”

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