A few things set Heritage House – a youth hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City – apart from the others.
More than a place to stay, Heritage House, which is divided into two buildings in the Jewish Quarter to separate the men and women, is open to young Jewish travellers who are interested in exploring their Jewish roots.
It’s virtually free to stay there – the staff asks for a donation in return for their hospitality – and the hostel is closed during the day to encourage the guests to explore the city and gain experience.
Chaya Weisberg, who directs the women’s hostel with her husband, Matan, said a vast majority of their guests are non-observant, disconnected Jews.
“People who want to be at the Kotel, are not for us… The people who don’t even know the value of the Kotel, or the value of having a Shabbat in the Old City… those are the people we want to help have that experience,” Weisberg said.
Although Weisberg insists that nothing is forced on the guests, the hostel staff is available and eager to offer interested travellers the chance to experience a Shabbat in the Old City, and provide information about travel opportunities, internships and education programs.
“There’s no programming. It really is just a hostel, but the live-in staff are there to create the environment, a very Jewish environment, but at the same time, there are no rules,” said Weisberg, 29, who lives at the hostel with her husband and three children.
“People can wear what they want, they can use their cellphones and laptops on Shabbat – whatever they’re used to, we respect that. They don’t have to go to Shabbat meals, they don’t have to go to classes, but based on what they want, we give them opportunities and inform them about what is out there.”
While the Weisbergs have been working at the Heritage House for nearly eight years, the non-profit organization was founded 26 years ago, by a rabbi who dedicated his life to connecting Jews to their roots.
Rabbi Meir Schuster was “quiet, shy, reserved – not someone who had a gift with words,” Weisberg said.
“He would often go to the Kotel to pray, and he saw all these travellers come, take a picture and leave, and it bothered him that that was their whole experience.”
Weisberg said Rabbi Schuster became a fixture at the Kotel because he would literally yell at God while he prayed.
“People would take pictures of him. He would yell at God because he felt that it was so unfair that there were so many Jewish people who have no opportunity to experience their Judaism… It really hurt him,” she said.
“So this shy, quiet, not a socially adept kind of guy went up to them and… he’d tap them on the shoulder and ask, ‘Are you Jewish? Do you want to come to a Shabbat meal? Do you want to hear from a Jewish philosopher?’”
She said many of those he approached brushed him off, but over the years tens of thousands accepted his offer and followed him to a class on Jewish thought, or attended their first Shabbat meal with a family who was happy to host a fellow Jew.
He spent 10 years doing this before his efforts were noticed by donors who gave him a generous grant to buy two buildings in the Jewish Quarter.
Over the past 26 years, about 60,000 young Jews from around the world have stayed at the Heritage House.
Sadly, about four years ago at the age of 65, Rabbi Schuster was diagnosed with Lewy body, a disease with debilitating symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The Weisbergs, who had initially been working at the hostel on a part-time basis while they completed their studies, eventually took over as the directors of the house.
Weisberg said there have been countless examples of guests who arrived at the house with little or no connection to their Judaism, and left having had meaningful Jewish experiences.
Danielle Rose, a 25-year-old Toronto native stayed at Heritage House when she extended her Birthright Israel trip in 2006.
Rose learned about the hostel from her Birthright leader who recommended it as a free place to stay.
Rose, who was then 19 years old, said that beyond celebrating Jewish holidays, she had little connection to her Judaism. Still, she was open to learning more about her heritage.
“I was open to influence and to learning more about Judaism. I had a friend who didn’t want to spend Shabbat there, but I actually did want to. I went there to learn about these things,” Rose said.
She said her first Shabbat experience was “meaningful, it felt like an authentic experience to be having in Jerusalem.”
Rose said her involvement with the Weisbergs and the Heritage House was part of what influenced her to move to Israel for three years and become shomer Shabbat.
Although she has since moved back to Toronto, she said the Heritage House “is good for people who might not otherwise get to experience a Shabbat meal… and want to have a [deeper] experience with observant Jews.”
Weisberg said that are countless stories of reluctant, disconnected Jews who have embraced their religious roots following a stay at the hostel.
She remembered one guest who told her she hated Israel, didn’t feel a connection to Judaism, and would never return to Israel.
Weisberg said she convinced her that if she were to make an informed decision about whether or not she really hated it, she’d have to learn more.
“She felt comfortable at a liberal place – she went to Pardes [Institute of Jewish Studies] – and she called me a few months later and said she loved the learning so much that she was going to study to become a rabbi,” Weisberg said.
“I see that as a tremendous success – to go from not wanting to be affiliated to wanting to make an impact on the Jewish people.”