The Human Sparkplug: My Teshuva Story

The Human Sparkplug: My Teshuva Story

Last week I was at a bar mitzvah when I saw Jeff. So I shepherded all my kids over to where Jeff was standing, and I told them, “Kids, I want you to meet the man who is personally responsible for the fact that you and I keep Torah and mitzvot today.” I felt such a geyser of gratitude that it was hard to get those words out without getting choked up…How can I possibly sufficiently thank this man who is directly responsible for the most basic blessings in my life?…Here’s an article I wrote a few years back about Jeff and how he, with one small act of kindness, changed my life from one extreme to another…

The Human Sparkplug by Chana Jenny Weisberg

If you had met Joshua 20 years ago, you probably would have thought that he was the world’s least likely candidate to become an Orthodox rabbi one day.

There is a photograph of Joshua in 1988 at the age of 17, sporting bleached-blond dreadlocks past his shoulders, a red-checkered kaffiyah wrapped around his neck, and smiling alongside an Egyptian worker who had just beaten him in a game of backgammon in a smoke-filled room in Cairo. The year this picture was taken, Joshua was a volunteer on a kibbutz so secular that rabbis were barred from entering kibbutz property at any time, under any circumstances. He didn’t mind, though. Joshua had come to Israel to learn about Socialism, not Judaism.

Or so he thought.

After a few months on the kibbutz, Joshua decided he would like to visit Jerusalem, so he asked a fellow volunteer for advice on places to stay. His friend told him, “You don’t need to plan anything beforehand. Jeff Seidel will set you up.”

“How do I find Jeff Seidel?” Joshua asked.

The volunteer laughed, “You don’t understand. You don’t find Jeff Seidel. Jeff Seidel finds you.”

Skeptical, but ready for an adventure, Joshua showed up at the Western Wall at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Within a few minutes, an American man wearing a pinstriped suit, wire-rimmed glasses, and saddle shoes approached him:

“Where are you for Shabbos?”

“Nowhere,” Joshua answered.

Jeff Seidel had found him. Before long, Jeff Seidel, whom Joshua remembers as straightforward and cheerful, had given him the addresses of a free hostel for Jewish travelers as well as a family who would host him for Friday-night dinner.

That night, Joshua experienced his first Shabbos with a family from Mea Shearim. The father’s peyos were even longer than Joshua’s dreadlocks, yet he felt totally welcomed. When his host quoted a section of the Talmud describing the Messianic era, Joshua challenged him, “These descriptions can’t possibly be intended literally!” His host insisted in a gentle but firm tone that they were.

Joshua was amazed. He had never met a Jew who believed in Judaism with his whole heart like this man did. Joshua loved the haunting melodies the family sang by heart, the little children running around unabated, the way the father recited kiddush over a silver goblet that had been passed down to him from his great-great-grandfather in Hungary. Joshua had never realized that a Jewish life could be something so vibrant, so real.

That Shabbat meal was an experience that Joshua would never forget. But it was the five minutes with Jeff Seidel that changed the course of his life.

Jeff Seidel’s simple question “Where are you for Shabbos?” showed Joshua that Shabbos and all of Judaism, for that matter, belonged to Joshua of Kingston Ontario with his bleached-blond dreadlocks and red-checkered kaffiyah just as much as it belonged to Jeff Seidel in his black hat and pinstriped suit.

Joshua returned for another Shabbos courtesy of Jeff Seidel, and then finished up his year in Israel spending a month at a yeshiva. By the time he began attending Wesleyan University the coming fall, Joshua was lighting Shabbos candles, studying Judaism on a regular basis, and eager to learn more.

In 1992, three years after Joshua had met Jeff Seidel, I was in Jerusalem while taking a semester off from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. At Bowdoin, I had not been involved with Judaism at all, and off and on I had even attended Brunswick’s Quaker Meeting House, where I felt comfortable since I had attended a Quaker school, Friends School of Baltimore, from the age of eight.

Once in Jerusalem, I attended ulpan, and volunteered with Russian-speaking immigrants at the Israel Religious Action Center, an anti-religious political-action center founded by the Reform movement. I lived with an elderly secular Israeli woman who had been a friend of my grandmother’s, but when the living arrangement became increasingly difficult, I started looking for an alternative place to live.

One day, while touring around the Old City, I noticed the sign for Jeff Seidel’s “Jewish Student Information Center.” When I told the secretary inside about my search for a new living arrangement, she promised me that the center’s director would call as soon as possible, and that he would do his best to help me out.

That night, the phone rang. It was Jeff Seidel.

“Hello! I hear from my secretary that you want to study in yeshiva,” he said.

“No! I am just looking for a place to live.” I had no interest in being brainwashed.

Jeff Seidel was unfazed. “No problem at all! I know a yeshiva where you can live for free, and won’t be required to take classes. I’ll swing by to take you there tomorrow afternoon.”

Jeff Seidel picked me up in a taxi the following day after ulpan, and took me to the women’s yeshiva. After I left my meeting with the rabbi in charge of the beginners’ program, I found myself reading the class schedule over and over. It was full of mysterious subjects that I had never heard of: “Chumash” “Taryag Mitzvos” “Pirke Avos.”

A day before, I had been terrified by the thought of studying at a yeshiva. But with that schedule in my hand, I realized that this was what I wanted more than anything I had wanted in my whole life.

By the time I returned to Bowdoin for my senior year, I was the one observant Jew on the whole campus (as well as in a 20-mile radius). Following graduation, I returned to Jerusalem to learn more.

A few weeks after I returned to Israel, I met a very nice yeshiva student at a Shabbos meal. I thought he was an exceptional person. And it turned out I was right.

I should know. I’ve been married to him for 15 years. His name is Joshua.

In 1981, several years before Jeff Seidel altered the course of my husband’s and my life by 180 degrees, a doctoral candidate in psychology from Chicago came to Israel to study at Aish Hatorah. He had a lot of energy, not so much patience to sit still, and a burning desire to help the Jewish people. He would skip his afternoon classes to go to the Kotel and speak with the many Jewish travelers who visited there.

This man saw a tremendous need to reach out to the tourists and students who gathered by the Wall. “I saw that these people looked at frum people like they were from Mars, but the truth is that we all share the same Torah. Our grandparents lived in the same villages in Europe. When I was growing up, there was a Black Pride Movement. But I always wondered, where was the Jewish Pride Movement?”

Within three months, this man was spending whole days at the Western Wall, his evenings at Hebrew University, and his nights visiting different bars, where visiting students gathered. He was so tireless in his efforts to ignite Jewish pride in these young people that he came to be known as “The Human Sparkplug.”

Today that man, Jeff Seidel, heads an international organization that places over 100 people for Shabbos meals every week, runs three Jewish Student Information Centers that receive 20,000 visits a year, and sponsors activities for thousands of Jewish students around the globe.

If you had seen my husband, Joshua, at the age of 17, you probably would have thought that he was the world’s least likely candidate to become a rabbi one day. But Hashem sees things in people that the rest of us don’t. And apparently, so does Jeff Seidel.

To this day, you can find Jeff Seidel on the go from eight in the morning until 11 at night, looking for people like me and my husband – Jews who have been waiting for their entire lives for someone to come up to them and say the words, “So where are you for Shabbos?”

Learn more about Jeff Seidel’s ongoing projects at www.JeffSeidel.com
Reprinted from The Jewish Press

Photo by Flickr.com user Jaime Kopchinski

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3 comments

  1. Jenny,

    What a moving story. I think we may take Jeff and the very few others who do what he does for granted. He does one simple thing that has changed so many lives. He deserves all of our thanks, even if just for bringing the Weisbergs into the lives of so many others who need direction and inspiration.

    Thanks for paying it forward.

    🙂
    Margelit

  2. Sharon Saunders

    Thanks for the good cry. Its amazing how things go around – now you and Josh open your home every Shabbat evening to 20-30 people for Shabbat dinner! It all beats screaming “Shabbos, Shabbos” to passing cars by a mile!

  3. Jeff has been the Shabbos Guy in Jerusalem for years. He’s helped many of us, college age, find our way…some of us a little and others a lot. Unfortunately, Jeff can still tell many stories “about the one who got away”. The people who seemed to be on the path and bounced off and back to Galut and away from Shabbat even.

    I never heard the phrase Human Spark Plug. That’s cute. When I met Jeff he was still registering for summer Ulpan classes at Hebrew University just so he’d be able to get to talk to us about Shabbat! And those classes weren’t cheap.

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