My name is Josh Epstein and I was the manager of the Heritage House for more than three years. The stories that I can tell from those years, in general – and about Rav Schuster in particular – could fill a book but here’s one that sort of sums it all up:
On one never-ordinary night at the Heritage House there was that familiar sound at the front door – the thud of a huge backpack hitting the floor, and then the buzzer. I was sitting with our night manager at the time and we both greeted Adam as he entered the office to sign in and get his bed assignment.
Adam had just returned to Israel after a spiritual week in India. He had two days until his flight back to Seattle, Washington and very little money in his pocket. Having heard from friends that there was a free place to stay in the Old City, the Heritage House was right up his alley.
It was a slow night at the Heritage House and the amount of traffic was low due to the aftermath of the incidents at the Kotel during Rosh Hashannah of 2000. The three of us stayed up chatting until late at night, getting to know each other and hearing stories about Adam’s trip. He informed us that he was Jewish but a devout Atheist and didn’t go for any of this religious stuff. This of course presented us the perfect opportunity to challenge his Atheistic beliefs. Adam was very smart and not at all afraid to ask questions and challenge us in return. We threw every proof and argument we knew at Adam but nothing seemed to sink in. We suggested that since he only was going to be in Israel for two days he should at least check out one or two lectures at the nearby Yeshivah. But Adam made it clear there was no way he was going to waste any time at any of those “lame establishments.”
The next morning he was greeted by “Yaakov”, the most cheerful positive Jew on the face of the planet. Yaakov asked Adam if he was interested in checking out a lecture at one of the Yeshivas. Adam quickly answered that he was not interested and was heading to the Israel Museum for the day. Adam made his way downstairs and was hanging out in the office with me when the front gate slammed shut and in walked Rav Schuster. I knew what was going to happen because I had witnessed it hundreds of times before. Rav Schuster walked into the office where the two of us were sitting. He looked at Adam who was in the chair opposite me and asked him his name. Adam eyed Rav Schuster with a mix of respect and curiosity that is hard to explain. Then Rav Schuster asked a very simple question: “What are you doing today?” Adam answered “Well I was thinking of going to the Israel Museum.” Rav Schuster responded “No, you should go check out a lecture at the Yeshivah.” Adam, still staring at Rav Schuster, replied “Ok, that sounds like a good idea.” Rav Schuster took a brief walk about downstairs and just as quickly as he entered, he left the Heritage House and was on to his next mission. Adam walked with Yaakov to the Yeshivah and I locked up the Heritage House with a huge smile on my face from having witnessed the event that just transpired.
What did Rav Schuster do to change Adam’s mind so quickly? We had three different staff members trying to do the same thing without success. What was the secret formula? How is it possible that a one minute conversation on the street with Rav Schuster can have such an influence? I’ve listened to many of the questions and tactics he uses: What time is it? Where are you from? What are you doing in Israel? Do you need a free place to stay? Can I offer you a hot meal? Such simple questions. But when asked by Rav Schuster, they change lives.
On this particular day I was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. That evening, Adam came walking in from a full day’s learning. He had such a smile and glow to him. I asked him how his day went and to no surprise he answered. “It was awesome… I had a blast and I’m going again tomorrow.” We spoke again that evening about what he had learned that day and more about his life. By this time Adam and I were pretty close. That’s how it goes at the Heritage House; it’s that kind of environment where you make friends very quickly. I said “Ok Adam, tell me what it was this morning that changed your mind from wanting to go to the Israel Museum to learning a full day in Yeshivah?” His answer revealed Rav Schuster’s magic.
Adam explained: “I have never met anyone in my life with such a passion for something, such a love. I had to find out what this guy was so excited about.” That is what changed the simple question of “What time is it?” to something much more than being about time. His passion, his love of Yiddishkeit and of every Jew enabled Rav Schuster to accomplish in less than a minute what most of us can’t do in a lifetime.