Article By CHEMI FRIEDMAN
September 11, 2019 INYAN
As the sky grows steadily darker and Shabbos envelops Yerushalayim in its warm embrace, the Kosel Plaza is packed with Jews of all affiliations, everyone coming with a singular goal in mind. They all want to take in the sanctity of Shabbos at the Kosel. Words cannot do justice to the remarkable scene that takes place. And then, the Kosel Plaza empties of its multitudes of congregants as people go home to enjoy their Shabbos meals. But some cannot partake in this Shabbos joy – because they don’t have a place to go. These individuals span the Jewish spectrum. It can be an American yeshivah bachur or a secular college kid. A visiting businessman or an elderly widower. These people would be sad and forlorn but, baruch Hashem, they are not – thanks to Jeff Seidel. A fixture at the Kosel on Friday night (and Shabbos day as well), Jeff is a welcome sight to the many who require Shabbos meals. Standing surrounded by people, Jeff handles the commotion in stride, with his trademark flair and penchant for excitement. After the proverbial dust has settled, everyone will have a meal, a seudas Shabbos.
Jeff grew up in Chicago in a typical suburban Jewish home of the ’60s. He attended public school for elementary school and Ida Crown Jewish Academy for high school. It was his strong curiosity, however, that prompted his personal sense of Jewish connection.
“I was always intrigued,” he says. “When everyone else would be celebrating Xmas, we wouldn’t join them. When the Nine Days came around, everyone else would be going swimming and we wouldn’t. I knew we were different, but it seemed like everyone was trying to hide that fact.”
It was a black revolutionary movement – an outgrowth of the civil rights movement – that served as a major motivator in Jeff’s connecting to Judaism.
“During the time I grew up, there was a movement called the Black Power Movement. This movement emphasized a pride in being black, being proud of who you were. I remember how, during the Olympics, athletes raised fists that symbolized Black Power, and I wondered to myself, where’s the Jewish Power? Where’s the Jewish Pride?”
It was this sense of searching that caused Jeff to identify and volunteer with Jewish causes.
“During the Yom Kippur War, I went door to door collecting for Magen David Adom. I would go counter protest against the neo-Nazis when they marched. I would get picked on in public school for wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis.”
This culminated with his move to Eretz Yisrael while enrolled in a prestigious doctorate program.
“I was getting my doctorate in psychology when I realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t what I really want to be doing. So I picked up and moved to Israel.”
For Jeff, it was an opportunity for overall kiruv, but there was one area that set him apart from the pack – his placement activities at the Kosel.
“I want to give everyone the best experience they can have at the Kotel,” he explains. “Some of these [secular] kids, if you don’t get them in Israel – you’re never going to get them. It’s our last chance.”
Although directing his primary efforts to kiruv, Jeff helps all kinds. “It’s all about giving everyone the best experience. Yeshivah guys also come. Some of them are looking for some inspiration. They’re in a foreign country by themselves; they could be slipping. Others are just looking for a nice night off. They want a nice meal with zemiros and divrei Torah. There are others who are just looking for something entertaining.”
However, Jeff doesn’t lose focus. “My first priority is always the secular kids. They need the experience.”
For the young doctorate student from Chicago, Eretz Yisrael was a change – a change he liked.
“Things were more informal here,” he says. “I learned in Aish and Ohr Somayach for the first few months. It wasn’t like in the States. Here, you were able to walk in late on a lecture; the Rabbis would be called by their first names – as in Reb Shmuel, Reb Chaim. I liked that informality.”
However, Jeff didn’t find himself cut out for full-time learning, so he set out searching for other opportunities to be involved in growth-oriented activities. He didn’t have to look for long before he found his niche.
“There were tons of tourists coming to Israel back then. I’d go over and talk to them. I knew how to speak their language and I liked going over to them and breaking their stereotypes [of religious Jews]. I saw this as an opportunity.”
Jeff has been at this self-appointed job for almost as long as he’s been in Eretz Yisrael – 38 years. He started small, but his duties have grown exponentially.
“I started working alongside Rabbi Meir Schuster and Baruch Levine (not the singer].” The well-known Rabbi Schuster was a magnet for souls at the Kosel, bringing backpackers and tourists in droves to a yeshivah for a class or to be placed for a Shabbos meal. “Back then, I was
“I’ve always had a place for everyone. I’ve been stuck in terms of it not being the exact fit for that person, but everyone’s always ended up with a Shabbos meal.”
placing about 15 people a week for the Shabbos meals. [However], I knew a lot of people and the numbers grew. Now, it’s about 100 kids a week. In its heyday, about 15 years ago, I was doing about 150 kids a week.”
I wonder how Jeff finds hosts for all these individuals. Jeff admits that it’s a constant struggle.
“Whenever I meet someone, I ask if they can host. I’m always looking for new people.” . Despite this, Jeff has never left someone without a meal.
“I’ve always had a place for everyone. I’ve been stuck in terms of it not being the exact fit for that person, but everyone’s always ended up with a Shabbos meal. Sometimes, I’ve had to go knocking door to door to get a seudah for the last guys.”
Jeff relates that although he’s famed as being the man at the Kosel, his program isn’t limited to that space.
“I have a website where people can sign up before Shabbos if they need a meal. Wherever someone is in the world, I’ll work to get it for them.”
It’s hard to imagine that Jeff is still going strong so many years after he started. Jeff sighs and admits that at times it is hard.
“Earlier this year, I thought I’d had it. That I couldn’t do it anymore. My head was spinning… I said, ‘I just can’t anymore.’ But I can’t stop. … And I never want to miss an opportunity to help someone out.”
Even with all the stress, there have been some lighter moments along the way.
“There was one guy I’d gotten involved with that needed a little break from everything. So, he went to Egypt for a little vacation. Well, he was watching the news there when suddenly he sees me on the screen. He was like – ‘Oh, man. I just can’t get away from this guy Seidel!
“What happened was,” Jeff explains, “that they had just opened the Kotel tunnels fully, that you could exit through into the Muslim quarter. It was a controversial move at the time and the media was covering the first few tours, one of which I was giving.
“At the time, though, the guy watching was just amazed. Today, he is a Rabbi in Florida,” Jeff ends.
There are also moments that make Jeff feel like all the work in the world is worth it.
“I’ve had people come [and] say that they live in Ramat Eshkol and that they want to host. It turns out that I had sent their parents on their first Shabbos meal!
“I once had a couple of kids from Spain come late, just as I was about to leave the Kotel. I had to work hard to get them meals. A couple of years later, a girl comes over to me and tells me that her friends are religious today because of me. It was these kids who had come late.”
Caring for Jews
“It’s the fact that I care for the Jewish people,” Jeff answers when I ask what motivates him to keep doing this. “It bothers me to see Jewish kids who don’t know what Tishah B’Av is.”
His ultimate goal? “To make them frum,” he answers emphatically. However, he adds, even if they pick up on only something, it’s still worth it.
“They might latch onto something that they see at the Shabbos seudah and bring it back with them into their own lives. It could be lighting candles, Kiddush or challah.”
Does Jeff have any final message?
“Klal Yisrael needs us. I think that everyone has an obligation to do what they can do for the Jewish people. It doesn’t have to be hosting – it just has to be what they’re capable of doing.”
With that, my interview is over. As I walk off through the bustling Old City streets, I have a heightened awareness of the people around me – many of them confused Jews searching for truth. I hope they find it. They’re so close. Perhaps all they need is an outstretched hand.