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Consul of Kindness

Leah Gebber

When Mrs. Yehudit Preminger a”h arrived in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the Jewish infrastructure was nonexistent. Though they weren’t rabbinic figures or kiruv personalities, she and her husband transformed the community. Wherever they lived, in Rio de Janeiro, and then in Israel, Yehudit’s exuberant love of Yiddishkeit touched thousands. A year ago, on 13 Sivan 5777, the world lost this pioneer

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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Yisrael Preminger: “We didn’t aim to make people religiously observant — what we really wanted was to give people a Jewish identity, show them what that meant, and give over the message: Marry Jewish, bring up your children Jewish”

U

ntil she was six years old, I think my mother thought the world was the rosiest, happiest place. And that shaped her whole life,” Fabia Preminger says of her mother, Yehudit.

Remarkable for any family, let alone one wracked by the suffering of the Holocaust.

Yehudit Preminger was born in 1945 in Montreux, Switzerland, to Leah and Emmanuel Pels, Leah came from an aristocratic family, and Emmanuel was a leader of the community. For seven generations, the Pelses’ ancestors had lived in Holland, but war sent them fleeing, first to Belgium, where their son was born in 1940, and then to Switzerland.

As soon as they were established in a safe haven, Emmanuel and Leah Pels turned their thoughts and efforts to their fellow Jews. They commissioned forgers to produce passports, which they smuggled into Holland and used to save hundreds of lives.

The dreaded knock on the door came even in neutral Switzerland. The Pelses’ scheme was discovered and Emmanuel was thrown into prison. When he was released, he simply picked up where he left off, using his extensive contacts to aid those under the shadow of Germany’s iron eagle.

Her childhood not only gave Yehudit fluency in seven languages, it shaped her internal ladder of values. Family, she absorbed, did not just mean close relatives; it included every Jew. Responsibility was a modus operandi, to which one bent the entirety of one’s skills, wit, and resourcefulness.

I meet with Yehudit’s husband, Yisrael, and second daughter, Fabia Preminger, in her parents’ Jerusalem apartment. “You know the irony — if my mother were still with us, there’s no way you would be sitting here, hearing about her life.”

I listen and wait.

 

Fabia continues. “Because to her, all of her achievements were unremarkable. Just a natural expression of who she was. What else could one do?”

I sit back on the embroidered armchair and wait to hear more.

 

New Shores

When Yehudit was six, her family moved to Brazil, to carve out a secure life for themselves. In Rio de Janeiro, they became active members of the Jewish community and Yehudit’s father found work dealing with metals. As a child, Yehudit was warm and social, and she enjoyed organizing fund-raising events for Jewish causes. She loved to ride her bike and play games on the beach; she enjoyed classical music and reading.

At 18, Yehudit possessed a command of multiple languages and excellent writing skills, and displayed a flair for organization and a certain cultural panache. When she landed a job at the Dutch consulate in Rio, she soon became the consul’s right-hand woman. Yehudit was given a variety of responsibilities, including masterminding diplomatic events and dinner parties — and in the process, learning skills she’d put to use her entire life.

When she was 20, her soon-to-be husband, Yisrael Preminger, traveled to Rio with his mother, Chana, to seek out shidduch prospects. When they met, reserved and thoughtful Yisrael was entranced by the vibrant, joyful young girl, hearts were knitted and glass was broken.

Wedding festivities over, it was time for the Mr. and Mrs. Preminger Junior to relocate. Belo Horizonte was the home of Yisrael’s parents, Moshe and Chana, and the home of his business. To Belo Horizonte they would go. 

 

Consul of Judaism

Fabia tells me this story as she flits around her parents’ apartment: pouring nuts, serving drinks, putting small items back in place. The Premingers’ apartment exudes more than simple good taste — it reflects the huge personality of the woman who decorated it, filling it with items both elegant and fun, found on her travels all over the world.

There are shelves of crystal formations, brought from Brazil. A small corner is dedicated to knickknacks from Holland: a collection of both miniature and oversized wooden clogs, painted in cheerful colors. The kitchen carries a framed print of Tintin with Captain Haddock, and a collection of carved wooden fruit painted in vibrant colors, handcrafted by a dear Brazilian friend. And, of course, her beloved Eretz Yisrael is featured in the numerous paintings and pictures that adorn the walls.

All is done with the flair that marked Yehudit as a woman of exceptional taste. Still, the literal crown of their home in Belo Horizonte was not the beautiful interior, but the fourth-floor guest suite, circular in shape, which was frequented by an eclectic mix of guests — rabbanim and MKs, Israeli singers and meshulachim.

Settled in their new home, Yehudit and Yisrael took stock of the community. Belo Horizonte was a very different place from Rio de Janeiro. True, Rio wasn’t Sao Paulo, with its bustling Jewish community, but it boasted a thriving Jewish life. In Belo Horizonte, there was but one shomer Shabbos family — Yehudit’s parents in-law, Moshe and Chana. Moshe and Chana hailed from Gura Humorului in Bukovina, Romania, where Yisrael’s world stood on the three fulcrums of cheder, the shtibel, and his home, and he was nourished by stories of his grandfather’s spiritual heroism in a Communist work camp.

Sitting at his dining-room table, Mr. Preminger reflects on the situation in Brazil in the ’50s. “The community was made up of children of survivors, and they had basically had no Jewish education at all,” he explains. Brazil was deeply divided; poverty was rampant and the gap between rich and poor was huge. People dreamed that Communism would bring about a fairer society, and although the Communists never succeeded in coming to power in Brazil, tension and uncertainty pervaded the streets.

Within this larger background, there was a new challenge for the Jewish community. “They say that not everything that is good for the Jews is good for Judaism,” Mr. Preminger reflects. “Well, that was certainly the case then.” Brazil was not only friendly to the Jews; they admired them. Brazilian girls soon woke up to the fact that a Jewish husband would treat his wife with respect and decency, and a Jew became the suitor of choice. Assimilation was rampant.

“This became the fuel that drove my wife and me in all that we did. We didn’t aim to make people religiously observant — what we really wanted was to give people a Jewish identity, show them what that meant, and give over the message: Marry Jewish, bring up your children Jewish.”

 

Team Preminger

As a couple, Yehudit and Reb Yisrael were a team made up of very different personalities. Yehudit was gregarious and charismatic; Yisrael’s reserved and quiet dignity meshed with his profound intellect. As a couple, they both complemented and empowered each other. As a unit, they were a palpable demonstration of appreciation, respect, and devotion.

Representing Torah values, they believed, was the sacred task of every Jew, both layperson and leader. And so they began a 15-year quest to bring Torah to Belo Horizonte. Her parents-in-law had set up a kosher mikveh, but every other aspect of Torah life clamored for attention. Mr. Preminger describes the situation: “There was no kosher butcher or bakery, there were no kosher cheeses. There was a nominally Jewish school, but it lacked any Jewish education. There was a Jewish country club, open to both Jews and non-Jews.”

Within this setting, the Premingers’ natural sense of responsibility came to the fore. “I think that what’s most powerful about this is that they were laymen,” Fabia muses. “And this helped them make a big impact. They were the consulate for Torah Judaism.”

Yehudit was a supreme balabuste, and this, too, came from her days in Belo. Yehudit would spend hours in her kitchen, producing her own wine and grape juice, cheeses, bread and challahs, as well as gourmet dishes. Yehudit reveled in her role. But that wasn’t all. Without a town shochet or a kosher butcher, where would they get kosher meat and poultry? Simple. The Premingers invited a shochet to live in Belo Horizonte, and the shechitah took place at their home, ensuring a kosher meat supply for the community.

Their absolute commitment to kashrus extended beyond their own sets of dishes. The Premingers exerted enormous pressure on the school, Escola Theodore Herzl, until they received a guarantee that the school kitchen would serve only kosher food.

The kitchen wasn’t the only setting for the Preminger revolution: Yehudit and Yisrael contacted the Machlaka Toranit in Israel, and were instrumental in importing teachers who’d impart a Jewish education to the youngsters. Upon the teachers’ arrival, the entire school day was reshuffled, with mornings devoted to limudei kodesh, while secular studies were relegated to the afternoons. The new teachers were welcomed into the Preminger home. Some stayed for months until, with Yehudit’s help, they settled into their own homes.

If there was no feeling of Shabbos on the streets, Yehudit would make Shabbos in her house open to whomever would join them. If the chagim were half-forgotten relics of the past, Yehudit would breathe life into those memories. Number 78 Rua Americo Diamantino became the address for food and hospitality, warmth and rich Jewish observance. Pesach could see more than 50 guests sitting down to the Seder.

They took no breaks from spreading Yiddishkeit. Each Chanukah, the Premingers would pack up pots and pans, and go to vacation in a small resort. Matter-of-factly, they asked permission to set up their menorah in the dining room. As night fell, they’d turn to their fellow vacationers with a smile and invite them to join along as they kindled the Chanukah lights. Before long, the small ceremony became so popular that before booking a vacation, people would ask whether the Premingers would be present.

Back home, Yehudit realized that the young married women needed a social group, and, disregarding her status as newcomer, founded a branch of WIZO, called Aviv. “They were a group of women living there all their lives,” Fabia marvels, “and it took the vision of a stranger to bring them together.”

Yehudit planned frequent events: lectures, fund-raising drives to raise money for widows and orphans, and parties, parties, parties — complete with interesting guests from Eretz Yisrael and musical entertainment. “Mom brought Yiddishkeit to life with warmth and fun, always thinking of original ways to attract and include all ages.

“During those years, my father worked in the textile industry,” Fabia reflects. “He was a successful businessman who was steeped in Torah. And that was part of my parents’ appeal. Their approach was one of b’chol derachecha da’eihu. Whether you are involved in kodesh or in the secular world, all can be uplifted and infused with the spirit of kedushah and ahavah, with derech eretz.”

In addition to bringing up her young children and running her home, Yehudit opened a high-end houseware and gift store. Mazali was the place to go for crystal and china, as well as tips and tricks on the art of entertaining and running a home.

Fabia would often go to the store after school, where she trailed around after her mother and even made the occasional sale. “But my mother was very careful,” she recalls. The shop assistants received a commission for every piece sold, and so Yehudit wouldn’t let Fabia sell a piece if a regular assistant was available. “That would be taking away from their parnassah,” Fabia explains.

The Premingers had a name for the utmost integrity — and also for treating their employees like family. “I remember the time one of the assistants needed complicated dental treatment,” Fabia says. “My parents arranged everything for her.”

 

Pioneers

How did they bring up their children among a nonobservant peer group? Warmth, wisdom, and pride. Fabia recalls attending peers’ birthday parties where nonkosher pizza or barbecue was served. “I was given strict instructions not to eat, and when I came home there would be the exact same menu waiting for me, fresh out of my mother’s kitchen — pizza, barbecue, you name it.” Every summer, the girls were sent to a frum camp in Rio de Janeiro, so they could spend their summers in an Orthodox environment.

Eventually, though, when the girls were teenagers, the family moved to Rio so as to enroll their daughters in a frum school. It was a matter of course that Reb Yisrael’s parents make the move along with them. During the seven years they spent in Rio before they made aliyah, Yehudit’s home was flanked by her parents’ and in-laws’ homes.

Fabia marvels at her mother’s ease and respect toward both sets of grandparents. “I cannot tell you how different they were. The Pels were cultured and aristocratic. The Premingers, coming from Romania, had all the warmth and fire of chassidic Jews. Despite these differences in temperament and outlook, every single Shabbos and Yom Tov meal was spent together. And it was a given. They would not have dreamed of doing anything different. That was my parents’ sense of family.”

Throwing themselves into their new community — initiating shiurim, Tehillim groups, and other ventures — did not diminish the Premingers’ sense of responsibility toward the community they’d built — and still loved. They were shocked and saddened to hear that on  the Shabbos after their departure to Rio de Janeiro, a microphone had been used during Shabbos services in Belo Horizonte.

“How can we leave the city without a religious representative?” they asked themselves. Mr. Preminger traveled by plane to Sao Paulo to speak to the Chabad shaliach there, Rabbi Shabsi Halpern, urging him to bring Chabad to Belo Horizonte.

Mr. Preminger recalls Rabbi Halpern’s wise provision: “He said he’d be happy to send a representative, but that his salary had to be paid by the community. This meant that the community would feel personally invested in his success.”

Mr. Preminger returned to Belo Horizonte and discussed Rabbi Halpern’s demand, receiving the community’s pledge of support. But there were still technical issues to be ironed out: Where would the young family live? No concerns: they’d stay, rent-free, in the Premingers’ home, which the family still owned. And of course, the building — along with its famed guest suite — would become the city’s Chabad center. Yehudit Preminger was 37 years old when she gave away the house that she’d designed and furnished for the sake of the community.

Rio de Janeiro was the Premingers’ home for the next seven years until, drawn to Eretz Yisrael, they made aliyah. There, they became the unofficial consul of Brazilian olim — as well as a destination for anyone else who needed a home away from home.

Every Succos, their huge succah held a grand reunion of Brazilian expats, Yehudit’s cavernous kitchen producing the lavish meal. When friends asked to borrow the succah to hold a bas mitzvah celebration, the Premingers went so far as to extend their already large succah. “That was Mom,” Fabia says. “It was never about her. It was about how she could contribute to other people’s lives.”

“But how did she do it all?” I ask Fabia, when she tells me about the numerous other gatherings her parents held each Succos: the Chol Hamoed seudah for lone soldiers; a party for women who had been rescued from their Arab husbands by Yad L’Achim; Hoshana Rabbah, which saw the succah filled with 300 people who came to learn. Fabia remembers producing thousands of milchig truffles, along with an abundance of delicacies.

As the succah was in the parking lot, Yehudit purchased special baskets and enlisted her guests’ help in transporting food and utensils from kitchen to succah. “Mom was a team worker,” Fabia explains. “She knew how to delegate.” I sense a woman who, in addition to her superb homemaking skills, kept her eye on the goal — and had a terrific sense of fun.

“She would take care of herself,” Fabia says. “She believed in a healthy body and healthy mind. She ate healthy and worked out, treated herself to massages and mani-pedis. She loved to sit and schmooze — she was a night bird and we’d talk for hours.” She loved the beach — their bathroom in Jerusalem is tiled with a pattern reminiscent of the Copacabana boardwalk.

She fed herself spiritually. Every week Yehudit would go through the entire parshah, along with mefarshim. Her Tehillim was her constant companion and she believed in davening b’simchah, talking constantly to Hashem from a place of joy.

And, of course, she had a huge well of empathy.

It was this empathy that led her to perform kindnesses, both big and small, for those less fortunate. Yehudit couldn’t bear to see elderly people forced to ask for handouts, and not only did she try to be especially generous financially, she’d also treat them with the utmost respect. The Premingers set up a soup kitchen, with Yehudit involved in planning the menu and other details. They supported Migdal Ohr, caring for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Yehudit’s firm belief in the power of a listening ear led her to establish the Preminger Therapy Unit in Jerusalem, under the umbrella organization of Emunah.

But it wasn’t only the big deeds, Fabia emphasizes. “My mother noticed when a regular collector needed a new shirt, and would buy him one before each chag. I still know the man’s size.”

 

Community Building

“Words that define people were never part of our vocabulary. People weren’t labeled as rich or poor, Ashkenazic or Sephardic — people were people. So much so that I remember when my parents were in a Paris restaurant with my sister and her kids. A woman came over and started chatting — a stranger, who looked a little off. I gave my mother a look, as if to say, I’m not comfortable with her talking to the kids. She said to me in an undertone, ‘Fabia, she’s just another person.’ ”

And when it came to people, Yehudit Preminger believed passionately in the power of the community.

Soon after their aliyah, the Premingers were finding it hard to break into the crowd at shul. There was a shabbaton and Mrs. Preminger stood up and made her way to the front of the hall. She said to the assembled room: “We are olim chadashim. Hebrew is not our language and we do not have your mentality. We left our lives in Brazil — and it was a good life — because Eretz Yisrael is the place for a Jew. I know, you all have your own lives, and you’ve been here all your lives — you fought for this country. It is wonderful, but you are not sensitive enough to newcomers. In Brazil, we embraced every Jew who came to the community. We feel left out!”

Her words, spoken not from anger or offended pride, but with love, hit home. Slowly but surely, the shul became a community. “She didn’t say it because she was vulnerable,” Fabia reflects. “She said it because we all need connection to each other. She was a wise friend and so many people confided in her.

“It was like that in our house all the time. I could look around the table and see people from 13 different countries. They were all friends with each other because of Mom.”

In the natural course of life, friendships develop and wane, as people relocate or move on. Yehudit carefully maintained friendships, both old and new. For 35 years, Yehudit and Yisrael returned to Belo Horizonte each year, maintaining connections and keeping a keen eye on the needs of the community. Around ten years ago, when Chabad needed new premises closer to the center of the community they encouraged the rabbi to buy a new plot of land and construct a custom-built complex, financing and helping to oversee each practical detail.

Rabbi Nissim Katri, the Chabad shaliach in Belo Horizonte, recalls the Premingers’ visit when construction was just about complete. “We were very excited, but it was monsoon season in Brazil, and the rain was beyond. It damaged the brand-new roof of the building, which was leaking badly. I was reluctant to show them around, thinking they’d be displeased. But Mrs. Preminger just looked up at the ceiling, gave a hearty laugh, and said, ‘Rain is a sign of blessing.’ ”

It is telling, indeed, that decades after the Premingers moved away, and without a single family member present, the Belo Horizonte community was moved to hold an evening of commemoration in honor of Mrs. Preminger’s shloshim. The entire community attended.

 

Hosting with Joy

The hub of Yehudit’s home was the kitchen. Not really kitchen, singular, but a huge room divided into three kitchens: fleishigs, milchigs, and pareve, each area immaculate, and equipped with everything a homemaker — and party maker — could dream of. There, she produced the food for the engagement parties and sheva brachos that the Premingers held for couples without family nearby.

Among the large collection of recipe books is a slim volume, unadorned with photos or flourishes, with recipes for the traditional Jewish homemaker. There are three versions of “Tsholent” and many other favorites. “My mother saw that the Jewish women in Belo didn’t know how to cook traditional Jewish foods for Shabbos and Yom Tov. So she organized cooking workshops and then produced this recipe book.”

That wasn’t the only book her parents published. They put out works about Tanach, taharas hamishpachah, hilchos Shabbos, Jewish living and faith, and more in Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew.

There’s a simplicity here: Look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it.

I mean, what else do you do?

Similar scenarios: A casual acquaintance calls up on Thursday, asking if he could come for Shabbos. The Premingers had already arranged to be away that Shabbos. Yehudit presented two options: The guest was welcome to stay in their apartment — she’d worry about food. Or, why not come along on their Shabbos away?

And this was no solitary case. Yoram Shamai, an Israeli tourist, stumbled into the Premingers’ lives quite by chance. “It was after I finished my army service, and I went with a British friend to travel in South America. We were wearing yarmulkes and walking the beautiful streets, when someone approached us and asked about our Shabbos plans. He told us to go to the Premingers.

“We were clueless about who he was referring to, but the guy took us over and introduced us. We ate there Friday night, and they insisted that we return Shabbos morning. It didn’t end there. Concerned that we didn’t know the language, they made sure someone would accompany us wherever we went. We ended up moving in for two weeks!”

Fabia relates that sometime she’d gently berate her mother for bending too much for the guests. On one occasion, there were three yeshivah guys, all of whom were recent baalei teshuvah, and each of whom had his own kashrus requirements. One wanted only a Sephardic hechsher; another would only eat Rabbanut; a third guest had other requirements. Even as her mother purchased the ingredients for three separate but identical menus — each cooked with its own utensils — Fabia berated her: “Hello, Mom, if people don’t trust our kashrus, they don’t have to eat with us.” Not only did Yehudit dismiss these claims, she cooked extra for one of the boys to take home to his family.

The kindness didn’t end there. When one of these boys got engaged, his parents stayed with the Premingers for two weeks when they came for the wedding. As usual, Preminger hospitality involved more than a bed or even meals: Yehudit prepared the parents emotionally by showing them videos of a frum wedding, and even did the mother of the groom’s makeup on the big day. A couple of years later, Yehudit accompanied the boy’s young wife to the delivery room.

“At times, I felt that people didn’t really appreciate what my mother did,” Fabia recalls. “She was too good. But she’d turn to me and say, ‘don’t go there. We don’t make cheshbonot for chesed.’ And that was it. Like the way she wouldn’t say a bad word about another person. It was just off-limits for her. She was super sensitive to people’s unspoken needs.”

And then there were the parties.

For Yehudit, there never really had to be a reason for a party. Life itself was enough to celebrate. But if there’s an additional reason…

Yehudit threw her energy, fun, and creativity into creating beautiful events that brought friends and family together and left lasting memories. Her eclectic ideas — from inviting a chef to give a demonstration, a cheese-and-wine taster, a teudat zehut party where participants were quizzed about life in Israel — translated into bonding, friendship, and laughter.

Good times were also to be had with her grandchildren, whether she was taking them to explore the wonders of the natural world, baking elaborate birthday cakes, or simply sitting beside them, coloring together. Or designing jewelry to match her daughters’ clothing. Or just sitting late at night, chatting about the events of a normal day.

After a short illness, Yehudit Preminger passed away on the week of her 72nd birthday, and 72 is the gematria of chesed. At the shivah, the Pinsker Rebbe commented, “For your mother, giving was second nature.”

Politely, Fabia disagreed. “For my mother, giving was her very essence.”

 

 

 

Testimonies of Kindness

After Yehudit’s passing there was a deluge of correspondence from the many people whose lives had been lit by her kindness. Here, a tiny sampling:

 

“I had just broken off a close friendship and it was very hard for me. I called Tia (honorary Aunt) Judith to come for Shabbos. Tia Judith told me that they were going to Herzliyah and invited me to go along. I went. I was looking down at the sea view, but Tia Judith sensed I was very sad. She told me. ‘Filh?o (my big son), I know it hurts, but with time you will see that everything is for the best.’ For 25 years, those words stayed with me.”

 

“When our grandson was very ill, seven years ago, and was in life-threatening danger, Judith arranged Tehillim groups all over the world, and hundreds if not thousands of people were davening every day for his recovery. Baruch Hashem, the tefillot were heard and he recovered and is today a healthy boy. Judith had a big zechut in this. She was really a very special kind and good-hearted lady.” 

 

“It was bitter winter, and we had no heat in our apartment. Somehow, Yehudit got wind of this and she insisted that we move in. For her it was a no-brainer.”

 

“Back when being divorced was a big stigma, I’d go to the Premingers’ for Shabbos meals. It was the only place I felt comfortable.”

 

“During the Gulf War, we were a young couple with older parents living in Petach Tikvah — and with the scuds falling and the fear of chemical attack, we were so afraid. I called up Yehudit to confide in her, and she invited me to come and stay with them in their apartment in Jerusalem. We stayed for the entire war.”

 

“I was 15 when I was diagnosed with cancer. Chemo took my hair, and also my motivation to live. I was from a broken family, and we didn’t have a penny to our name. Yehudit bought me a beautiful wig — and she gave me the encouragement to keep fighting.”

 

L’illui nishmat Bula Yehudit bat Reb Menachem

 (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 593)

 

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