When I arrived in Israel in 1979 it was to help my younger sister and her new husband get settled on a kibbutz. My uncle Jerry accompanied us. Uncle Jerry had become frum long before the “movement”. As kids, we avoided him at family gatherings – lest he corner you – and talk about something Jewish for what seemed like hours. Unbeknownst to any of us, my uncle harbored the “sinister” intention of directing us (once in Israel) into authentic Jewish hands.
A friend of a friend of my uncle living in Jerusalem suggested we visit a neighbor of his who could help us find our way around Israel. So we walked around the block and up the three flights of stairs, and knocked on Reb Meir’s door. I had no idea who he was, or what he did. We just walked into his living room. (Talk about an easy catch…but I made up for it later).
After a time – Reb Meir took us to Ohr Somayach. I attended classes because I wanted to be a good influence on my (then) brother-in-law, who had recently converted to Judaism. The purpose of our trip to Israel was so that he would become more Jewish.
It seemed like every morning at 7 sharp – Reb Meir was knocking on my door: Let’s go! Time to get up! And when I opened the door – he was standing there full of energy, with that big warm smile.
For a while I was being recruited by Macabee Yerushalayim to play basketball and to coach their high school age team (I met them in a pickup game).
(Basketball was a big part of my younger years. I was on the All State team in high school – and was offered several college basketball scholarships. Injuries cut my carrier short).
I played some practice games with them (Macabee Yerushalayim) – and they took me to Tel Aviv to watch Macabee Tel Aviv play Greece. One day several burly Israelis walked into the Ohr Somayach bais medresh looking for me. Reb Meir happened to be there – well, he chased them out…literally! And that was the end of my Israeli basketball career.
Reb Meir did what ever it took.
“Why aren’t you learning?” Reb Meir once asked me. Being the good natured wise-guy that I was, I answered: “if you can beat me in arm wrestling…I’ll sit down and learn. He looked at me – as if to say “is that all I have to do?” He sat down and immediately beat me. I was more stunned than embarrassed.
Another time I challenged him (I don’t remember the stakes): a foot race to the taxi stand in the Old City – which was a series of narrow winding cobble-stone streets away. I was wearing sneakers and he was wearing shoes. I could not believe he beat me (I was fast – an essential quality for a good point guard). My only consolation was (is) that nobody knows the contour of the old city like Reb Meir.
After six month’s at Ohr Somayach – I wanted to leave – to go to neutral ground – to think. I went to Paris for a month and visited a cousin who was in law school there; and then back to the States. When I eventually returned to Ohr Somayach (I don’t remember how many months later) it was Rosh Hashanna – Yom Kippur time. Everyone was on a spiritual high. I felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t know why I had come back.
I voiced my reservations to Reb Meir at a Simchas Bais Hashoava – and he took me over to meet Reb Isbee (if you don’t know who Reb Isbee is – there isn’t enough room here to explain). He arranged for Reb Isbee to learn privately with me. We learned for a full zman and completed the classic hashkofo sefer – Derech Hashem. I was never the same. I still had a long way to go. But I was changed.
After that zman Reb Isbee wanted to end the private sessions. He explained that other boys needed his time. When I told this to Reb Meir – he said “tell Reb Isbee that you have a chazaka” (meaning: we had an established learning time together spanning an entire zman – not a trivial thing to break). I went back to Reb Isbee armed with Reb Meir’s chazaka. He was persuaded, although we expanded our one-on-one to a small group which included Seth Mandel, Roger Volgel, and a few others. Eventually the shuir was moved to Motzi Shabbos at Reb Isbee’s home. That was a very special opportunity. That shiur continues to this day.
I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point, instead of inviting me every Shabbos (as he had been doing for some time), Reb Meir told me – that he would tell me – when not to come for Shabbos (i.e. when there was a choson and kallah coming; it happened once or twice). So for about two years I spent almost every Shabbos at the Schusters. I felt – and feel – like family. (What an incredible zchus – that changed everything for me).
I would often daven at the Kosel Friday night – and then follow Reb Meir home on his winding route through the mystical streets of Yerushalayim as he deposited the backpacking students he had collected at their respective prearranged Shabbos hosts.
Duvi, Reb Meir’s son, was probably about 11 years old then. When the platoon became large and unwieldy, as it often did, Reb Meir (at a strategic spot) would send Duvi in one direction – off into the night – leading half the group – and he would take the rest in the another direction; each depositing yiddishe neshamas (most often – for their first Shabbos experience) as they went – eventually rendezvousing back home for the Shabbos meal. It was something to behold; like an elite military operation. I was so impressed by Duvi; he discharged his duty like a seasoned pro.
The Shabbos experience at the Schusters was special; with Mrs. Schuster’s excellent cooking – and her delicious chollah and cakes; she (her home) communicated to us – that a Jewish home was a normal, comfortable, warm, and friendly place to be. That was more important to me than I realized at the time. I was in the midst of major transition – in a “far-away-land”. The yeshiva itself was a huge adjustment. So the opportunity to share, and feel part of, the Shusters home and Shabbos was special – and important.
One Shabbos night Reb Schuster severely sprained his ankle escorting his students to their Shabbos hosts. He sat with his leg propped up on a chair throughout the Shabbos meal. His ankle was incredibly swollen and painful. It was pouring rain – and I remember Mrs. Schuster telling him that he could not go out after the meal (as he always did) to collect the students from their Shabbos hosts. She was right – anyone could see that he could not walk on that ankle. But he went – just as he always did.
Starting about 20 years ago – I had the zchus to drive Reb Meir around on some of his fundraising trips; and to have him at our home for Purim and Shabbos- and at family simchas.
If you have never seen Reb Meir bentch, or sing Shabbos zmiros, or daven…then you have missed something very special. I remember watching my children (at different ages – over the years) as they watched Reb Meir; his eyes closed – faced turned upwards, shaking his hand and finger to shamayim; he meant wholeheartedly, every word of a bentching, of a shiur hamalos, or of a Shabbos song. Reb Meir’s deep emunah was getting into my children’s bones – we all grew from it; these were rare and precious chinuch experiences that last a lifetime.
I love Reb Meir – like a brother and like a Rav. And as I read everyone else’s stories – I am moved by the love we all share for him.
In the service of Hashem – Reb Meir has never lived by the limitations of ordinary men; Hashem – please – let his refuah be extraordinary too. May the Rebono Shel Olem bentch Meir Tzvi ben Merka with a refuah shlayma – b’karov.
And may Hashem bentch the entire Schuster family with strength, with good long healthy life, with brocho and hatzlocho, in ruchnius and in gashmius, and with lives filled only with nachas, simchas, and b’soros tovos.