Tales From the Heritage House by DB Estrin, Review by Lara Gedzelman
Back before there were well-trodden inspirational routes laid out and outreach machines brought large groups of college kids/professionals/mothers/businessmen (name your cohort, but be sure that the group is curated to be as homogenous as possible), there were brave souls who created or opened institutions to Jews with little or no exposure to Judaism, individuals like Jeff Siedel and Meir Schuster, z”tzl, who gave themselves over to reach out to any unaffiliated Jews that crossed their paths. One of those institutions was the Heritage House, which, by offering a warm home away from home, gave a safe space to access Torah Judaism.
For the uninitiated, the Heritage House is a free Jewish hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City founded by Rabbi Meir Schuster, the indomitable kiruv malach, a real-life “catcher in the rye”, whose whole life was dedicated to giving Jews back to their birthright.
When kiruv was the domain of a very few visionary individuals, rather than an organized process, Rabbi Schuster was often the first religious Jew to make contact with the non-orthodox Jews who arrived in Jerusalem. He would stand for long hours in the Kotel plaza to invite them to take a class on Judaism in one of Jerusalem’s many fledgling institutions for beginners. The hostel was his idea to solve the problem of Jews who were receptive to learning more, but not yet ready to commit to a learning program.
In the spirit of full disclosure, before I offer my review, I have to admit that I, too, was picked off the wall by Meir Schuster, and first met the author Dena Estrin when I arrived in the Heritage House one erev Shabbos, and we have maintained a warm friendship over the past 30 years. In fact, one of the stories is mine, but with enough details altered that my mechutainiste (who loved the book!) doesn’t know it’s me. J
That said, I approached the book with the curiosity of one who experienced the Heritage House in its heyday. I wanted to see if my experience would be reflected in its pages. It was, but with so many more facets – a backstage pass.
Mrs. Estrin had a fascinating vantage point as the main madricha at the Heritage House from 1986-1991, years that saw a surge in spiritual seekers and finders of Orthodox Judaism. It was a fertile time, and many of those who began their observant lives in Jerusalem in that era have gone on to impact the Jewish community significantly. Tales from the Heritage House recounts stories of those who made the leap to observance after their stay at the Heritage House, interwoven with Mrs. Estrin’s personal tale of finding her water legs in observant life.
Before large-scale kiruv programs graced college campuses and donor millions were solicited for taking Jewish teaching on the offensive, most people who ended up in the various beginner programs in yeshivot and seminaries had trickled in on their own initiative, one at a time. For many, their first point of contact with frum living was in the Heritage House, where they showed up either because they had heard of this free place to stay from friends, or because they were brought straight from the Kotel, by Rabbis Seidel or Schuster.
Without official training and titles, Mrs. Estrin, and Gila Manolson, as the hostel housemother, were on the kiruv front lines, armed with only a few years of Torah learning themselves, their intelligence, and extravagantly generous hearts, ready to engage with and embrace all who crossed their threshold.
What’s NOT explicit in the book, but bursts forth from between the lines, is that this book is a tale as much of interpersonal connection and love, as it is of spiritual seeking. The ability of the staff to relate to such a varied group, to welcome all comers, figuratively and physically, strikes me as remarkable. The making up of the beds, peeling fruit, giving directions, day in and day out, the listening for hours — all these acts of love were rare and precious. This is all is very much to the credit of the author, who downplays her own uniqueness in the book, as if it were perfectly normal to have DMCs with strangers until 2 am, night after night.
I mention this not only to credit a friend, as much to point to a truth about this story that we can take to heart. Ideas and ideals are very nice, but it’s often only people and relationships that make a difference in the end.
Each hostel dweller had to make choices, and the book does not focus on those who said, “No, thank you.” (And there were many of those.) But still, the staff’s profound ability to connect comes through as a key ingredient to the Heritage House’s success.
Another theme woven through this book is the power of Hashgacha Pratit – Divine Providence. Once you begin to tally up all the people who just “happened” to go to the Kotel at that hour, who just happened to bump into the right backpacker to steer them to the door, or broke their leg, or were bitten by a poisonous bug … it’s very hard not to see a Divine Hand in all these seemingly random occurrences which put them in the right place at the right time to be drawn closer to Judaism.
But it’s not just a collection of forgone conclusions, even when it seemed written as such, rather a portrait of the dance between the Divine Providence and personal response. Hashem orchestrates a situation, but people choose to walk through the door or not. And in the middle of this dance, the author was constantly on hand, as a spiritual doula of sorts, to support the process. Yet, to be effective, she had to give whatever she could offer, and then step back to give them room, becoming a part of the dance herself.
I spent a month learning in a program in the Old City around this time and the feeling of “something momentous is happening right here, right now… this decision will change her destiny…” was overwhelming. The intensity of living at the cogwheel of the universe is not for everyone, and wasn’t for me. (But it makes for a great read.)
One of the best features of Tales of the Heritage House is, as mentioned above, that it is also the author’s tale of being and becoming. She is a fellow traveler, just a few miles further along the road. Probably one the reasons Mrs. Estrin was able to reach so many of those who came through the door is that their story was also her story, and though the details change, the common problems resonate. How can I change my whole outlook in life? How can I change my lifestyle? Where do my old ambitions go? What are my values and how can I adapt to new ones? Where do I fit in?
Less satisfying for me was that, because of the author’s limited engagement with her hostel guests, we never know how the stories really end. This is a book of beginnings only, with all the excitement and wonder of first love. But for me, the nitty gritty of where the rubber meets the road is lacking. It feels like the book ends with “And they all lived happily ever after!” Thirty years later, it’s too facile to imagine that as being true. I would enjoy a second volume, where each of these travelers explain where their journey took them, after the initial stages.
Tales from the Heritage House captures well the spirit of the time, when armed more with love than a plan, some special individuals dedicated themselves to creating a “home” in the Old City of Jerusalem, and changed a generation of their brethren. But in addition to the feel-good inspirational genre of kiruv stories, there is more to take away here, if only you read between the lines.