Jeff Seidel cheerfully admits to having a terrible sense of direction. “It’s the worst,” he says with a grin. “I get lost coming out of the shower.”
But if there’s one way his sense of direction is unerring, it’s when it comes to the next generation. After nearly four decades of working with college students, Seidel can spot from across the Western Wall plaza those who could use a home-cooked Shabbat meal or a warm family embrace — the kids with the potential for a deeper connection to their Jewish souls, their people and their homeland.
At the center of the bulls-eye is the cadre of students in Israel for a semester or year abroad, as well as Birthright travelers and those on gap-year programs.
Seidel, 61, is recognizable by his trademark saddle shoes and Midwestern friendliness. He has been a fixture at the Kotel since 1980, when he arrived in Israel with a master’s degree in psychology and a determination to give young Jews the taste of a traditional Shabbat. But these days, Seidel doesn’t just rely on catching college kids there and sending them off; he runs a multi-pronged operation.
On his desk in the hole-in-the-wall office in the Old City is a heavily annotated printout of Shabbat meal matches between students and over 50 families who volunteer to host. It’s in constant flux, with last-minute edits until sundown on Friday.
Jacob Nemeth was walking through the Old City last year with his Birthright group when a man came up to him with a gift: a prayer book. “Before I knew it, he was sending me Facebook messages asking when I was coming back to Israel,” relates Nemeth. It didn’t take Seidel long to size him up and arrange an internship for him in Israel, which turned out to be “an absolutely amazing experience,” says Nemeth.
While in Israel, he was taken under Seidel’s wing. Shabbat meals and invitations to parties and events materialized.
“I tell my friends that when they get to Israel, they have to meet Jeff,” says Nemeth, who is back in the United States finishing up at the University of Hartford and waiting to hear if he lands an AIPAC fellowship. “If it weren’t for Jeff, none of this would have happened — not my internship, and not my connection with my Judaism and Israel.”
Nemeth is one 13,605 young Jews reached each year through three Jeff Seidel Student Centers, where students get a hot meal and an inspiring program, and the trips he leads to Poland and around Israel. But it’s the Shabbat and Yom Tov meals he has arranged that have made him a household name.
Twenty years ago, Mindi Zissman was a University of Wisconsin undergraduate spending her junior year at Hebrew University. “It was my first week in Israel, and Jeff was waiting for us when we walked out of a bar. He called out, ‘Who wants to go for a Shabbos meal?’ she recalls. “For me, that was the beginning.”
Seidel usually picks up the phone in the office by the second ring. On a recent afternoon, his end of the conversation went: “No Seder plans yet? Young lady, don’t you worry. We are going to take care of you. Shoot me an SMS, and I’ll get you a great family. You’re going to love ’em.”
Three students from South Africa pop in. Does he have an extra tallis? One’s a kohen and wants to do the mass blessing at the Kotel over Pesach. (Why yes, says Seidel, he does.) Making sure they’re set for the Seder, he invites them to drop by afterwards.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll still be up.”
A seat at the table
In 1980, a 22-year-old fresh off the plane from Chicago, Seidel started hanging out near the Kotel looking for kids without a Shabbat meal and scouring the area for families willing to host.
Even as a kid, he had a taste for kiruv. He was 11 when three medal winners at the 1968 Olympics raised their fists in a black power salute. “I asked myself, ‘Where’s Jewish power?’” Two years later, he insisted on having his bar mitzvah on a Sunday Rosh Chodesh, “so none of our guests would break Shabbat by driving.”
But even this Energizer Bunny can’t be everywhere. Seidel, not content with the Jews fate sends his way, has erected an entire scaffolding of programs to catch as many as he can. Each year thousands of young adults flock to his student centers near Hebrew, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Universities. There they find a variety of programs and services, from kosher meals to computer rooms — even an on-site laundry.
A newcomer to Hebrew University on a one-year program, 22-year-old Gilly Mizrahi heard about a challah-baking event at the center. Soon she was attending lunch-and-learns and weekly activities. “It’s a home away from home for me,” she says.
Other Seidel brainchildren include JeffsTravelGuide.com, which provides Jewish contacts around the world and GetShabbat.com, a website for finding a Friday night meal nearly anywhere in the world.
“I left Jeff’s office with something that changed my life forever,” says Lauren (Miriam) Nades, who stopped by last year after her Birthright trip ended. “I use the siddur he gave me every day. It’s changed the direction of my life.” Seidel helped her find a host for Sukkot back in Florida and has been instrumental in her plans to return to Israel next year to learn.
“Before I came to Israel, I was a spiritual seeker but not religious at all,” says Nades. “Jeff helped me discover that Judaism had all the answers I was searching for.”
Seidel is ringmaster of a lively Facebook group with 26,000 members and runs Scholarship to Israel, which helps with the costs of Jewish learning programs, as well as the Max Steinberg Israel Diplomacy Program, advocacy training named for the American lone soldier killed in 2014.
But one of Seidel’s highest-impact initiatives are the student trips he runs throughout Israel, as well as to the Nazi death camps in Poland.
“When I heard about the Poland trip, I knew I wanted to do it for my grandmother, who lost her whole family in Auschwitz,” says Dylan Goldberg. “To see the names of my great-great aunt, uncles and cousins listed there, to stand on the rubble of their barracks brought it all home to me. It made it so much more important to marry someone Jewish and raise my children Jewish.”
Since returning to the University of Michigan, Goldberg has upped her connection to the Jewish community. “In Israel, they told me I’d always have a seat at their table. Someday, I want to be able to do that for others.”
Growing in understanding
“Jeff told me to keep my eyes open — that the kids you least expect will be the ones, and he was right,” says David Sultan of New York, who met Seidel 25 years ago and now helps subsidize the Poland trips. “The trip gives them a whole new perspective on what it means to be part of this Jewish people and shows them where they come from. And on so many campuses, where it’s not cool to love Israel, this strengthens them.”
Traveling with Seidel to Poland gave Samantha Zive insight into what drives him. “He’s so passionate about Judaism that we jumped out of our comfort zone.”
Standing in the gas chamber in Majdanek, with the only sound Rabbi Ezra Amichai chanting a solemn “Gam Ki Elech”(Psalm 23: “Even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me”), Zive says “everyone was bawling [their] eyes out. It wasn’t a visit to an historic place; it was a very personal journey.”
Through those tears, Seidel sees them growing in their understanding of themselves as Jews.
But when it comes to working his magic, someone’s got to pay the fare. That gets Seidel on the plane three or four times a year to fundraise (and visit his 90-year-old parents in Chicago). He estimates that he raises and spends about $1 million a year, nearly all of it donations from North American Jews. This money runs the centers, covers payroll (of 10 staff members) and rent, underwrites trips and replenishes his supply of books.
Between his trips to raise money and Jewish consciousness, Kotel matchmaking, visiting his centers and prowling the bars on Thursday nights for kids who could use a Shabbat meal, the man isn’t home much.
His wife says she should have gotten the picture the moment she met her future husband in 1982. “He introduced himself, then turned to the young woman sitting next to me and asked, ‘Do you have a place for Shabbat?’”
Thirty-seven years and five kids later, they’ve served thousands of meals to students in their Old City home, where the door is always open.
The lifestyle didn’t come as a shock to Peninah Seidel. Growing up in a Chabad family in Minneapolis-St. Paul, “having lots of guests was always our norm, and it still is. With kiruv, it’s not a job. It’s an adventure.”
Still, that adventure can be stressful for this intensive-care nurse. “It’s not always easy being married to Peter Pan,” she sighs. “Every year when the new students come, he presses the reset button, and we get to make friends with sophomores again. Sometimes, our home feels like [the film] ‘Animal House.’”
Then a reminder of its importance appears. “A woman came up to us in the airport and said, ‘Jeff Seidel? You fixed me up with my first Shabbat meal!”
Although he’s an optimist (laugh lines give him away), there are a few irritants that get to Seidel. Things like the “BDS lies” they’ll hear back on campus, and the young Jews who never get to Israel and don’t know what they’re missing.
He realizes that not everyone is a fan of his style or even outreach itself, particularly parents who are worried about their children heading to Israel in the first place.
“Sure, I get criticized, but look at it this way,” he says. “If a kid comes home from Birthright and tells his parents he’s joining the IDF, are his parents going to scream at Hillel for organizing the trip? Something he saw in Israel touched something inside him, and that’s what he needs to do.”
The same principle, he says, applies to the young Jews who attend his programs or go to a Shabbat dinner. “When it changes the way they see Judaism and themselves, it’s something inside them or they wouldn’t have responded. Besides,” he adds with a grin, “criticism means we’re having an impact, so we must be doing something right.”
There are stories that haunt him. But for every sad tale, there’s one that keeps it all going.
“There was a fella at Hebrew University years ago, and I would try to get him to go to programs and he never would. I’d book him for Shabbos meals and he’d cancel. At the end of the year, he said to me, ‘Jeff, I know you tried very hard to get me, but I have a friend coming next year and you’ve got to meet him.’ In the back of my mind I’m thinking to myself, ‘Not another guy like you; you pulled my kishkas out.’ But six months later, I get a call from a kid who says, “My friend told me I’ve got to come to the center.’ The kid loved it, starting coming two, three times a week. And today, he’s a rabbi.”
It’s a fine line to walk. “I know they’re hungry for it, but I don’t squeeze ’em. It may take some time, but on some level, they’re all going to get it.”
The power of Torah
“When you’re in college, you’re open to new identities and beliefs, which is why kiruv during those years is so important,” says Zissman, in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah. “And Jeff is super warm and actually hilarious — a regular guy they can connect to.”
But all kibitzing aside, the man never takes his eyes off the prize, she adds. “He knows the power of Torah and mitzvot, and connecting young Jews to them and their Jewish selves is his life mission.”
Seidel sees them for both who they are and who they can become. “I know it has to come from them — that only they can become passionately Jewish enough to resist the temptations back home.
“But you know what? Nobody gave me a license to do kiruv,” he says. “I just know I have to help Jews bring out Jewish souls. I just go out to work every day and do that.”
“We may only be 2 percent of the population, but when we’re together we’re so much more,” Zive says. “And Jeff gives us the opportunity to do that, to be that.”