Since 1982, Jeff Seidel has introduced thousands of Jewish college students to their first Shabbat experience as well as offering free tours and classes through his various Jewish Student Information Centers serving Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, and IDC in Herzliya. He has lived in Jerusalem’s Old City for over thirty-nine years and connected tens of thousands to the Land of Israel.
Q: What was the old city like when you made aliyah?
The pathways were all rock and rubble. Whatever you see here now was not here at all; it was just mud. I remember there was no Cardo. I lived above the Cardo where it is today. If it rained, we would slide down as if we were in a sled on a winter day. But we were sliding on mud, not white snow. In addition, there were small gravel rocks everywhere. The electricity would go off all the time. That was the Holy Land we came to, thirty-nine, forty years ago.
Q: The Jewish News of Chicago once referred to you as “The Hunter” at the Kotel seeking Shabbat dinner guests. Would you please tell us about this?
What I want to do is to make sure that everyone has a place for Shabbat. At the Kotel, I would ask the college students, “Where are you going to be for Shabbat?” I would tell them that they were invited to a Friday night dinner with a family. “You can come whichever way you are dressed and you can go out afterwards,” I reassured them. When I first started, I would hand out Shabbat invitation flyers to the college students who were walking by at the Kotel.
I always talked to the students as if I had known them for years. My approach was something like, “Guys, guys, guys, where are you for Shabbat? It is a must to do for Friday night.”
Q: In addition to the Kotel, you have been known to actually go into nightclubs hunting for Jewish college students to teach them about Shabbat. It is obvious that they are not expecting anyone to talk with them about their yiddishkeit or shabbat. What do you say to them as an ice breaker?
I can only go to the clubs at night, in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, with my students who know me. Then I can network with them to meet other students.
Once, I was in one of the nightclubs in Tel Aviv and one of the boys asked me, a little wary, “What are you doing here? I don’t think that you belong here.”
“I came with a few of my students who invited me to go with them,” I replied. I’ve come to network, to see who I can invite for Shabbat. You don’t see me drinking? You don’t see me dancing?”
And the unthinkable happened: the boy hugged me! He hugged me! Then he put me on his WhatsApp group, announcing that “Jeff Seidel is here at this bar and is recruiting for Shabbat.” He posted a picture of me and him and a couple of other people and captioned, “Our Lord and Savior!”
These days, I find Shabbat dinners for about 100 students every week.
Q: Would you share with us some of your success stories?
I met a young man from Tel Aviv University at the Kotel. He was from Germany. His friends had told him that he could come for a Shabbat dinner. He was not Jewish and neither were his friends. I said to him that right now it is late, would you please come back in three weeks and I will set you up? Three weeks later, this gentleman sent me an email saying you invited me, I want to come for Shabbat! So I set him up. On Sunday, a young fellow from a nearby Yeshiva was helping me to review the invitations for Shabbat. He read this German fellow’s application. It said that his great-grandmother was Jewish!
I contacted him, asking “How did your great-grandmother survive the Holocaust?” He said that she had married a Nazi and that this Nazi was able to destroy all of her records that she was Jewish. And that’s why she was not caught. This story just happened two weeks ago. Today he is in contact with Yad Vashem to check out his roots further. It will be a wow moment if we figure out that he’s really Jewish, after all!
Q: What hashgacha pratit, divine providence, did you witness in your life?
Many years ago, I met a young man who was a medical student in Tel Aviv. He had heard that if you go down to the Western Wall, you will find a guy named Jeff Seidel who will set you up for Shabbat dinner. He was nervous about getting lost at the Kotel but decided to go anyway. He was thinking to himself, “How am I going to find this guy…Jeff Seidel?” So he gets on the bus at the central bus station in Tel Aviv headed for the Kotel. He was sitting on the bus and said to the guy next to him, “Are you going to the Western Wall? Because, if so, I am also going there. I want to get a Shabbat meal. I am studying as a medical student here for the summer. Meantime I really want to have a genuine Shabbat experience; I have heard cool things about it. And I was told to look for an American fellow named Jeff Seidel. By any chance, do you know how I can reach him?”
I looked at him and said with a smile, “I am Jeff Seidel, sitting right next to you.”
Q: If anyone wants to help you with your work or get involved, what is the best way to get hold of you?
Anyone can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact me in Israel at 052-286-7795. Or visit my website at:
To hear the entire interview, please click on the audio link below.