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Rebbetzin of the World   

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’s last legacy and lessons. Exclusive excerpt

A Childhood Interrupted

The Jungreis family had heard the rumors about the atrocities perpetrated in Poland and Slovakia by the most “enlightened” and cultured nation of the 20th century, the Germans, but like so many of their Hungarian Jewish brethren, they reassured themselves; these rumors couldn’t be true. It seemed impossible. Unimaginable.

But when the impossible became reality, and the Nazis began rounding up and imprisoning Hungarian Jewry, Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Jungreis ztz”l and his wife, Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis a”h, took their young family and traveled from their hometown of Szeged — where Rabbi Jungreis was chief rabbi — to Nádudvar to visit the family patriarch, Rabbi Yisroel HaLevi Jungreis Hy”d. The Jungreis family had illustrious yichus, tracing back to the days of Dovid Hamelech, and it was the most natural thing in the world to seek comfort and guidance from the previous generation at a time of crisis.

For a young Esther, the trip meant spending time with her beloved zeide in his study, surrounded by his holy seforim, savoring a treat of sugar cubes dipped in tea. But on this trip, as her zeide held her on his knee, she watched in horror as he started crying. Running to her father, Esther alerted him that her zeide was crying. And then her father began to weep, too.

“Come,” he said to her. “Let’s take a walk, and I’ll explain to you why Zeide is crying.” Putting her coat, scarf and boots on for her, he took her outside to the deep snow.

“I’ll walk ahead,” her father said, “and you, my precious child, will follow in my footsteps.”

After walking just a short way, her father pointed to the path he had made in the snow with his footsteps and asked his young daughter if she understood why he walked ahead of her. The perceptive little girl, eager to please her father, responded, “You walked ahead so I could follow in your footsteps and not fall down in the deep snow.”

And for the rest of her life, Esther followed in the footsteps of those who came before her, and encouraged other Jews to do the same.

Her daughter Rebbetzin Slovie Wolff recalls her mother saying how, standing at roll call every morning in Bergen-Belsen — where she and her family were incarcerated after being rounded up and force marched to Germany — she would look at the Nazi guards, and think, Baruch Hashem, I’m not you. Rebbetzin Jungreis knew that as a Jewish woman, she came from a line of prophets and kings, and despite the degradation she was experiencing at the hands of her oppressors, she was still the King’s daughter.

That connection to those who came before was a tangible reality for the Jungreis children. “I was lucky and privileged to have known my zeide, my mother’s father,” Slovie tells me. “I didn’t know my father’s parents since they were killed in the war, but I always felt connected to them. My parents somehow enabled us to grow up in the US, but to feel connected to all our bubbes and zeides from Hungary, and to take solace and comfort and strength from them.”

In the midst of all the horror of Bergen-Belsen, Esther’s father said to her, “Be a blessing, my child.”

It was an incomprehensible statement. How could she be a blessing in a place like Bergen-Belsen?

Her father didn’t leave the statement vague, though, and gave her a difficult, but quantifiable task. “Smile,” he said. He explained that when adults would see her, a child, smiling, it would give them hope. It would imbue them with faith and strength and cause them, too, to smile.

“Throughout her life, no matter what my mother was going through — and of course she had her pressures, like everybody — she never lost that smile,” says Rebbetzin Slovie Wolff.

Her father’s mandate, “Be a blessing,” was one which Rebbetzin Jungreis lived by throughout the rest of her full life. It motivated all her tremendous accomplishments in teaching and inspiring hundreds of thousands of people.

And aptly, her recently published book of wisdom and teachings is titled, Be A Blessing.

You Are a Jew

Miraculously, Esther, her parents, and two brothers survived the war and emigrated to the United States. There, Esther married Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, her third cousin. Her husband had lost nearly his entire family in the war; only one brother survived.

They bore and raised four children and dedicated themselves to the klal, realizing that despite the absence of physical danger in America, there was great spiritual danger.

Together, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Jungreis founded a shul in North Woodmere, New York, where the community was hardly Orthodox, and not particular friendly to the idea of Judaism. But that didn’t stop the Jungreises from teaching Torah and, in many cases, becoming like family to their students.

“My mother blessed us with many brothers and sisters,” says Rebbetzin Chaya Sora Gertzulin, Rebbetzin Jungreis’s oldest daughter. She goes on to explain, “Whoever she reached through her teaching, she took into her home, into her family. She called them her Hineni children.”

Every Friday the phone would ring constantly as dozens of people called their “Torah Ima” to wish her a gut Shabbos. This was a relationship Rebbetzin Jungreis encouraged, telling people, “I’m your Torah ima and Torah bubbe, you’re my children and grandchildren.”

In 1973, wanting to reach more people than she was able to from her home in North Woodmere, the Rebbetzin founded the kiruv organization Hineni, to fight the assimilation and intermarriage that was overtaking Jews in America. She’d had a dream to use Madison Square Garden to teach Torah. It was a dream that seemed fantastical at the time, but in 1973, with the founding of Hineni, it became a reality. At the Hineni launch event, she stood on the stage at Madison Square Garden and opened her speech with the words, “You are a Jew.”

That event, along with her columns in various newspapers, propelled the Rebbetzin onto the world stage.

And travel the world she did. The Rebbetzin was invited to speak at Oxford University, to the American army, to wounded Israeli soldiers. She had the privilege of knowing Prime Minister Menachem Begin; she was appointed by President George W. Bush to be a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. And of course, she taught in her beloved Hineni Heritage Center, which she built in Manhattan in 1989.

The Rebbetzin had an uncommon ability to connect to a wide array of people, no matter their background or connection to Yiddishkeit. Slovie says of her mother’s ability to do this, “It was truly a gift, an unusual and unique gift. Some people have their audience and their followers, but wherever my mother would go, every age, every type of Jew would connect to her. It was amazing.”

One such example is Sandy and her future husband. After a speech the Rebbetzin once gave in Chicago, a middle-aged woman approached her with a request. She’d gone through a turbulent divorce and wanted nothing more than her children to have more success in their own marriages. She introduced her daughter, Sandy, to the Rebbetzin, and asked for a brachah that her daughter find a marriage partner soon. Rebbetzin Jungreis asked the young woman what her Hebrew name was and gave her a beautiful blessing.

Several months later, the Rebbetzin received a phone call from Sandy. She’d met the man she wanted to marry and would be traveling with him through New York. Would the Rebbetzin be able to meet them and give them some premarital counseling?

Despite her packed schedule, including a speech she was giving that day, Rebbetzin Jungreis met the young couple and gave over to them life wisdom they were able to carry into their married life.

Chaya Sora recalls with a smile that when her mother met Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky z”l, she told Rebbetzin Jungreis that while she, Rebbetzin Kanievsky, was the rebbetzin of Bnei Brak, Rebbetzin Jungreis was rebbetzin of the whole world.

In Deep Snow Once More

I didn’t have any significant personal interactions with Rebbetzin Jungreis, but some years ago, I happened to attend the same wedding as the Rebbetzin, and there I witnessed the Rebbetzin doing shtick with her walking stick. I’ll never forget the image of Rebbetzin Jungreis, petite and regal, standing with the kallah in the middle of the lively dance circles, her walking stick raised above her head. She lifted that stick and pumped it up and down, full of energy. I remember thinking, I want to be like that when I grow up! She may have been a diminutive 4’9”, but the Rebbetzin seemed unstoppable.

In her later years, she survived a serious illness. And then one day, several years ago, at a Pesach retreat in San Diego, while getting up after doing some push-ups (yes, push-ups), the Rebbetzin fell and broke her hip. “I got a call that she’d fallen. She was in a lot of pain, and I went to the hospital in an ambulance,” recalls Slovie, who was with her mother at the retreat. The Rebbetzin needed immediate surgery, in this hospital far from home, right before Yom Tov. All the siblings came and took turns being with their mother.

“When she went through that, it was a whole new challenge,” says Slovie. Her mother had to learn to walk with a walker, and then a cane. You would imagine that for a woman so energetic, this could be tremendously frustrating. “To my mother, this became another incident of falling in the snow, and then picking herself up and following in the footsteps of those who came before her.”

After her recovery from her broken hip, the Rebbetzin was once again diagnosed with an illness. This time, it was terminal. As they waited for the doctor when she was given her ominous diagnosis, Rebbetzin Jungreis said to Slovie, who was with her in the examination room, “I’m so scared. I’m not scared about illness. I’m scared because every day I say the pasuk in Uva L’Tzion, ‘v’lo niga larik, v’lo neileid labehalah, that we shouldn’t toil in vain and shouldn’t produce futility.’ I never want my life to be reik and behalah, empty and futile. I want to be able to teach and to continue doing for Am Yisrael, for Hashem.”

Her fear wasn’t of death, but of the possibility of even a portion of her life being lived without purpose.

Written Legacy

Throughout her illnesses, the Rebbetzin worked on the manuscript that would become her final message to the Jewish nation she loved so dearly. “Other people would be taking it easy, would be convalescing. But not Ima,” Chaya Sora says with a knowing laugh. “Even when in the hospital, even while doing physical therapy, she would have her pad of paper with her. I don’t know how she did it. I would say to her, ‘Ima, take it easy!’ But that was her life. That was really her life.”

“My mother was extremely brilliant, while also being down to earth,” explains Slovie. “So I believe she had a cheshbon here, and that was that all her life, everything she did had to have a purpose. And so she used even an illness, her broken hip, and then her final illness to propel her to accomplish. She was in terrible pain, she didn’t feel well. When you don’t feel well, it’s very difficult to think and to write. But she took all her koach and put it into the manuscript of her book of wisdom and teachings. It’s quite an amazing feat.

“My mother’s manuscript was the wisdom of lived experiences, not someone’s opinions or lectures,” says Slovie. “Two things moved me very much about it. The first is that my mother really bared her soul as to what she was going through, and what people feel when they go through challenges. You feel understood when somebody goes through something and shares how they felt. It gives you koach when you go through something yourself, any challenge. She really expressed herself in a beautiful, dignified, and uplifting way.

“My mother addressed the pain of what it is to have to go through this difficulty and the emotion that comes with it, but at the same time, she kept her sense of humor. I laughed out loud when my mother spoke about her shtecken (walking stick). She had tremendous wit; my parents both had a great sense of humor. We grew up learning a lot, but you just refer with one word to some of the jokes my parents made, and all my siblings know what you’re talking about and start laughing. To this day. They gave us a very warm, loving home, and my mother’s manuscript reflects that warmth and that humor as well.”

A section particularly moving to Slovie is where her mother speaks about her father’s last Shabbos at home when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. “It just brought everything back,” Slovie says. “She describes it so authentically. It was a very difficult Shabbos because we knew that my father was facing a huge mountain ahead. He tried so hard that Shabbos to speak in shul without anybody knowing that he’d gotten this terminal diagnosis and that he was going to the hospital after Shabbos. We were all there. My mother describes it all, and just reading it brought it all back.”

“So many chapters touched me, but a section that touched my neshamah and brought tears to my eyes were the stories about my father a”h,” says Chaya Sora. “He really lived his life to bring blessing to others, and the stories my mother shared in the book about him were really ‘Be a Blessing’ stories.”

There was never a question in the Jungreis children’s minds that they would publish their mother’s manuscript. Despite their disparate and hectic schedules, with all the children busy giving classes for Hineni, they collaborated over the phone and got together a few times to prepare the manuscript for publication.

I wondered what it must have been like to accompany the manuscript through the process of publishing without having their mother there to guide them on the myriad decisions that needed to be made.

Slovie asserts that while her mother wasn’t physically with them, she was definitely there. “My mother was a very strong presence in our lives, and one of her many legacies that she left us is, firstly, that we siblings should be very connected. We’ve all continued her path. Her voice very much resounds in our heads. That’s what guided us as we went through the manuscript: ‘What would Ima say?’”

Chaya Sora explains, “We didn’t want to change our mother’s words, nor did we have her permission to do so. These are her words, and really she made it so easy to publish because it was just perfect. It was a perfect manuscript.”

She hopes not just her mother’s biological children and grandchildren, but all her Hineni children and beyond will benefit from reading her mother’s final wisdom. Her dream is that everyone learns its lessons, and that it has an effect on all of Am Yisrael. “You don’t know what brings us a step closer and closer to Geulah, but definitely, people bringing brachah and health and chesed and joy and happiness into the lives of others, and making Am Yisrael more cohesive that way — that definitely brings us close to Geulah, and that’s my hope for the book.”

“How do you know if someone leaves a legacy in This World?” asks Slovie. “It’s if after they leave you can still remember them with a smile and hear their voice. This was her final legacy. That is her final message for us.”

A Lollipop and a Kiss

A young man, somewhere in his thirties, came to one of my Hineni Torah classes. He was a new face; I’d never seen him before, but that’s not surprising, as each time I teach, new people show up. When I looked at him, I detected pain, much pain, in his face and in his eyes. After my Torah lesson, I greeted him.

“Are you new?” I asked. “Were you ever here before?”

“Not really, Rebbetzin, but I feel as if I have been. Actually, I have an appointment to see you a little later.”

Later that evening, this young man entered my office.

“So tell me, what is the problem?” I asked, as he settled into a chair in front of my desk.

“It’s not a problem that brings me here, Rebbetzin, but rather a story that I’m certain you would want to hear.

“I come from a dysfunctional family,” he went on to explain. “My father was very abusive, destroying my mother and my siblings. When I was five years old, he abandoned us. But he did have visitation rights, which meant that we were regularly subjected to his tirades. Our mother tried to get legal protection from him, but it wasn’t so simple. He was a powerful man, well-connected, and his money seemed to be endless.

“One day, there was a fundraising bazaar held in your husband’s synagogue. My mom, who was always strapped for money, decided to go. ‘Perhaps I’ll find some bargains,’ she said, and she took me with her. We entered the synagogue and saw many vendors offering different items, from clothing to gadgets to electronic equipment.

“I was a sad little boy, forlorn and lost, desperately yearning for some love, but no one paid me any attention. My mother went browsing from booth to booth and I tagged along as she deliberated what to buy. Then this very tall man came over to me and smiled.

“’What is your name?’ he asked in a kind, fatherly voice, as he patted my cheek.

“’David,’ I answered.

“’That’s an amazing name. It was the name of a great king of Israel, who wrote beautiful prayers that had the power to reach G-d’s Holy Throne. And he was also a man who was mighty and strong — stronger even than Superman! — and was capable of defeating the monstrous giant, Goliath.’

“And with that, he took a lollipop from his pocket and gave it to me. He planted a kiss on my forehead and placed a yarmulke on my head.

“Amazed by the entire incident, my mother whispered, ‘David, that was the rabbi of the synagogue!’

“That rabbi, Rebbetzin, was your husband, Rabbi Meshulem Jungreis, of blessed memory.”

—Chapter Thirteen: The Magic of A Moment

A Mission Remembered

When my beloved husband was at Sloan Kettering, struggling with colon cancer, he never lost sight of his purpose in life. In seven short weeks, he went through three surgical procedures, one more devastating than the next. Following his last surgery, the surgeon, in a very clinical voice, informed us that the cancer had metastasized and had spread throughout his stomach, and he doubted whether he had more than a few days or a week left.

“You can go see him in Recovery,” he told us, “but be sure not to stay too long; he’s in a lot of pain.”

I felt like a ton of bricks had hit my head. As I made my way to my husband’s bedside, I tried to rein in my emotions and not reveal how terrified I was. I approached his bedside, took his hand, and whispered, “I just saw the surgeon. He told me everything went well. In a few days you’ll be home.”

With tears filling his eyes, he whispered: “Which home? Above, or here below?” And then, as if to change the subject, he said to me, “Let’s talk emes, truth. Let’s talk reality. You see that young man over there?” He pointed to a medical resident. “He’s a nice, single Jewish boy. Find him a shidduch.”

Bewildered, I looked at my husband. Could I have heard right? In this setting he was asking me to look for a shidduch for a young man he hardly knew? Why would he care? Why should he think of others at such a moment, when his body hurt, his head ached, and his heart was breaking? But then I understood: My husband knew full well that his days were numbered, and he was searching for one more opportunity to fulfill his mission and be a blessing. The recovery room offered precious few opportunities to fulfill that purpose. But he never forgot his mission. “Find a shidduch, find a good wife for that young man.”

—Chapter Two: In the Throes of Illness


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 824)

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