Seth Mandell’s Story

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It was February of 1977.  I was at the end of my second long stay in Israel.  I had been there for a year, 6 months on a kibbutz ulpan and 6 months working in a Communithy Center in Afula in Israel’s Jezreel valley.  I had returned to see if I wanted to live in Israel and decided that I did not. In fact, I had been accepted into the Peace Corp and was scheduled to start training to spend 2 years in Senegal in November.

A friend of mine had brought his car over from Greece and with a week to before my flight to return to America, we decided to take a final tour around Israel. We would travel together  to visit friends we had met on kibbutz and then drive down to a beach on the Red Sea where we planned to camp out for a few days before he dropped me off at the airport to catch my flight back to the States.

But first I wanted to visit Jerusalem and say goodbye to the Kotel.  While I was neither observant nor knowledgeable about Judaism, I did love spending time in Jerusalem and I felt a special connection to the Western Wall. We got to Jerusalem   in the afternoon, parked the car, and walked around the city buying gifts for friends and family and exploring the nooks and crannies of the old city. At about 8 o’clock we had finished our day in Jerusalem and I stood at the Western wall thinking that I would never see it again.  It was dark out and chilly.

“You ready to go?” I said to my friend. The wall loomed up in front of us, illuminated by giant spotlights.

“Yeah” let’s get out of here.

“You have any idea where the car is?”   I said.   It had been about six hours since we left it parked somewhere.
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“I think it’s up that way”

We walked up a long flight of stairs, down a long wide pedestrian walkway that emptied out into what was a dirt parking lot filled with cars.  Looking around I realized we were lost.

“I have no idea where we put the car” I said

“Neither do I” admitted my friend.

 “What are we going to do?”

“Keep walking until we find it I guess.”

That was fine with me, we had time, and we had energy and we both enjoyed walking around Jerusalem.

As we entered the parking lot I brushed by a guy leaning against car.  I looked up at   the silhouette of a tall man wearing a wide brimmed hat and a black trench coat that was draped over his shoulder

For reasons that escape rational explanation to this day I stopped and looked at him and said “You can’t get me anymore”.

“What?”

“I said you can’t get me anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve met you several times over the past couple of years and every time I see you  ask me if I want to go to a class or a Shabbat meal and every time I said no because I didn’t have time. So I just wanted you to know that you can’t me anymore.”

He smiled and looked down at me.

“Why not?”

“Because tonight I’m going to Tel Aviv and then I’m going to the beach and then I’m going to the airport to fly back to America.  Then I’m going into the Peace Corps. So you can’t get me anymore.”

Reb Meir Schuster looked at me for a moment. “How would you like to meet a Rabbi?”  he said.

I didn’t hesitate. Rabbis were not on my agenda.  “No thanks.  “We have to find our car and get out of here.  We’re meeting someone in Tel Aviv. “

“How can you not be open to learning something about your religion?”

I paused. One of the standard rules I had established for myself during this time of travel was, among others, “Be open to everything.”  This was after all a remnant of my college experience in the late Sixties and being open to experience was a major theme. One of the other principles I was trying to live by was to be completely honest and not hypocritical.  Rave Meir’s words had struck a cord. If indeed I was determined to be open to everything.  If the purpose of my travels was to learn as much as I could how then indeed could I not be open to learning about my religion.  To say I was not open to religion but open to everything else would be hypocritical.  The worst thing of all. So I tried another tactic.

“How old is he?”

What?

“How old is this Rabbi”

“About 50.”

“Too old.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t want to meet him.”  I said.  “He’s too old.”    I assumed that anybody 50 years old would be boring and worse, not cool.

‘Wait a minute. ”my friend said .He turned to me. “ Maybe we should meet this guy.”

“Why?”

“It might be interesting.”

“Yeah”, I said, picturing myself sitting down with a boring, slow talking 50 year old Rabbi for an interminable time.  “But we have to find the car and get to Tel Aviv. I don’t want to get there too late.”

“Where’s your car?” said the Reb Meir.

“Ah, we’re not sure.”  My friend said.  “We left it somewhere around 2 o’clock and we don’t know where.

“I’ll help you find it.” Said Rabbi Schuster.  “Just come with me for a few minutes.  I have to make one stop and then we’ll find your car and we’ll go meet the Rabbi.”

 It took us forever to find the car.  We walked through the Jewish quarter, into the Arab section and through every parking lot our guide could think of. He spoke not at all except to say his name was Meir.  Finally we passed through the Jaffa gate and walked around the new city until my friend said, wait a minute, this looks familiar and located the car.

By the time we arrived at the Rabbi Nachman Bulman’s house it was 10 o’clock at night. We stayed for more than an hour and it as after 11 by the time we left.

We walked out the door and out to the car.     “So boys”   Rav Meir said,   “Would you like to have a place to stay tonight?”

“No thanks.”  I said.  We’re on the way to Tel Aviv.

Really? It’s pretty late.”  He said, “Maybe you should stay here tonight and go in the morning.”

“That’s a good idea.”  said my friend. I’m pretty tired. I don’t want to drive all they way to Tel Aviv.

I did not like the way this was going.  “That’s OK,” I said.  “I’ll drive. I’m not tired at all.”

“You know I don’t have insurance.   You can’t drive my car.”

I pulled him off to the side.  “Look” I said.  “I think we should get out of here.  I don’t want to stay overnight.”

“I’m tired.  I’m not driving.”

We got into the car and the Rabbi directed us to a series of newly built apartment houses. The construction was still going on. He brought us from building to building knocking on doors apparently looking for an apartment with a couple of empty beds.  Finally he invited us to enter an apartment.  Unbeknownst to us the apartment was an Ohr Somayach dormitory.

I don’t know when Rav Meir’s day started on that day, but I know it didn’t end until well after midnight.  Of course the next morning he was there at breakfast to ask us if we wanted to go to a class in Jewish philosophy. After class, Rav Meir was there.

“The Rabbi would like to speak with you in his office” he said to us as we walked out of class.  And escorted us down the stairs to what would ultimately become a new life for both of us.