Shalom Schwartz’s Story

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It was February 1974. I was four and a half months into my six month Kibbutz Ulpan program at Ein Dor, a shomer hatzair kibbutz, near Tiberias in northern Israel. I worked extra days on the kibbutz prior to our program’s Jerusalem trip to be able to stay on afterwards in Jerusalem for a long weekend.

The trip included a visit to the Kotel. Everyone was given some time on their own and told when we should return back to the bus to depart. I was not into “holy” places so I checked out the archaeological digs nearby instead, and returned to the bus.  We were about to leave and everyone was asked to check if anyone had not yet returned. Sure enough, my roommate was missing so I headed out to the Kotel area to retrieve him.

As I came closer, I saw him in conversation with a tall man in a black hat and suit. I walked behind the man, and signaled my friend that the bus was leaving and that we had to go. Reb Meir turned around and began a conversation.

“Where are you from?”

“Canada”

“Where? Toronto?”

“Yeah, but excuse us we actually have a bus waiting for us; sorry no time to talk.”
I start walking away with my friend. Reb Meir is walking with us.

“ Do you know Yeshivas Ner Yisrael?”

“Look, we really have no time for this conversation and besides I didn’t understand those Hebrew words you said.”

“Yeshiva…the Rabbinical College in Toronto…have you been there?”

“No I told you I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have never heard that word “yeshiva”. And we really have to go….”

I start walking away faster. Reb Meir keeps pace.

“It’s on Finch Avenue. Do you know where Finch Avenue is?”

“Yes I do know where Finch Avenue is but that connection really doesn’t make me interested in what you’re selling. We really have to run…..”

“I’m not selling anything. I was just telling your friend that if he was looking for a place to stay in Jerusalem that he could stay for free at a yeshiva and listen to a class or two on Jewish philosophy.”

He now had my attention…I had been planning to stay for a few days in Jerusalem and that morning I  had asked at the reception desk of the youth hostel we were staying at if they had room for the coming days. They had said that another group was coming in and there was no room available.

“For free? What’s the catch?”

“No catch; it’s just an opportunity to learn something about Judaism.”

“I’m not interested…we have to run; a whole group of people is waiting for us.
Stop following us, we must go!”

He wrote out his name and phone number and said that I could phone him anytime I like.  I cautiously took the paper and quickly boarded the bus with a sigh of relief.

That night, I tried to reach a list of youth hostels to see if they had room. They were either full, their lines were busy, or no one answered. I pulled out the paper I had received and stared at it. I was hesitant but reminded myself that one of the main reasons I had been drawn to Israel was to figure out this Jewish thing. Am I a Jew? What does it mean? Do I want any relationship to this empty religious identity that has been such a confusing burden or choose to finally get rid of it?

I dialed the number.

“Just one class and I can sleep over?”

 “Okay. Meet me at 8:45 at Damascus gate tomorrow morning.”

“Okay.”

Reb Meir escorted me to a class of Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l who was then Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Samayach. I was shuffled into the class and listened for 2 hours to inspiring wisdom that I never imagined existed in Judaism.

My life had been changed forever.

I spent 3 days being asked probing and challenging questions and asking a few of my own. I decided to go back and then finish my Hebrew Ulpan Program a couple weeks early to invest 2 weeks in figuring out this Jewish thing and then moving on with my travel plans and my life. Reb Meir personally wrote me while I was back on the kibbutz, like a good friend, to make sure I kept my commitment. Two weeks at Ohr Sameyach became 3 months and then seven years at Aish HaTorah.

My parents, my brothers, my family, my wife, my children and grandchildren; my students and students’ students all have enormous gratitude to Rav Meir and his family. I have always stood in awe of his mesirus nefesh for Am Yisrael, and his example of what a caring Jew can accomplish.