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From Our Archives: Her Answer Is Always “Hineni”

Barbara Bensoussan

Mishpacha joins Klal Yisrael in mourning the loss of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis a”h, and shares our profile from Family First Issue 483 in tribute to a luminary of our nation

Thursday, August 25, 2016

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ANGEL OF SHABBOS “It was that knowledge, that I was an angel of Shabbos, that enabled me to stand strong despite the abuse, the persecution of the Nazis”

I

 wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled up in front of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’s white house on Long Island, New York. After all, she’s a living legend who has led mass Torah events in Madison Square Garden, traveled the world on speaking tours, published best-selling books, and met with heads of state. She has inspired thousands to do teshuvah, founded the Hineni Heritage Center, and made hundreds, if not thousands, of shidduchim. 

But I had heard that the Rebbetzin’s health was challenged. After a fall two Pesachs ago, she’s undergone surgeries for broken bones and a torn meniscus. Would she really be up for an interview?

The Rebbetzin’s two beaming daughters, Slovie Wolff and Chaya Sora Gertzulin, open the door. The Rebbetzin glides just behind them, aided by a walker, greeting me warmly. “My granddaughters decorated this for me,” she says, indicating fringes of sparkly tape hanging from the bars. “I get around with it everywhere!” 

Pictures of the Rebbetzin typically show her attired in elegant suits, but tonight, she’s more casual in a black shell, long black skirt, and white sequined top. But she’s wearing her trademark short feathery blonde wig and round earrings. Though petite, her size is deceiving: The Rebbetzin is a bren — a ball of fire — when it comes to Torah. 

The Rebbetzin’s spotless home, with white walls and shiny black granite floors, feels warm despite the modern decor. It’s clearly a home that’s rarely empty. Her “gabbait” Fradl is on hand; her daughters are there visiting; the phone rings occasionally; and a tall, strapping grandson, Avraham Jungreis, stops in to say hello between playing basketball and taking his rebbi from Eretz Yisrael out for dinner. He walks in, kisses his grandmother, and bows his head to receive a brachah. “You are meeting a queen,” he tells me, as he leaves.  

Every time one of the children, children-in-law, or grandchildren leaves the house, they bow their head for the Rebbetzin’s brachah. “When my father was ill, I used to run to his bedside twice daily, whether he was at home or in the hospital. When I arrived, I too would bow my head to receive my saintly father’s brachah,” the Rebbetzin says in her unique accent, New York layered on top of alter heim.

“When I would leave, once again I would ask for his brachah. And then, as I stood by the door ready to go, I would turn around and come back yet for another brachah. My mother jokingly would say in Yiddish, ‘Gei shoin! Vos kimeste tzurick? Go already! Why are you coming back?’

“ ‘Eech vill baiten noch ah brachah, I’d like to ask for yet one more brachah.’

“ ‘Genig — enough,’ Mama would say, ‘Tatty already gave you the brachah,’ to which my father would respond, ‘You can never have too many brachos. As long as you can, you have to chap the brachos.’ ” Then the Rebbetzin’s father, the Rebbe, would add, “Halevei, if only I could go to my father for a brachah.”

I’m ushered into the dining room, where a table, flanked by dozens of chairs, runs the entire length of the room. “We’re having an event here on Sunday,” Slovie explains. “A bunch of the Hineni parents are bringing children to get a brachah from my mother. We have close to 100 people coming, most of them public school kids. I keep getting texts asking if more people can come, and my mother just tells me, ‘Of course, let them come!’ ”

We settle at one end of the table. To the side, a spacious counter is filled with a dazzling display of two dozen or more leichter that had belonged to the Rebbetzin’s illustrious zeides and bubbies who were killed in the Holocaust. The candlesticks were buried in Hungary during the war and miraculously recovered. The wall is covered with portraits of saintly rabbanim, tzaddikim, and roshei yeshivah of the Jungreis family. Among them, the Rebbetzin’s father, her husband, her grandfathers, and the Menuchas Asher, a baal mofes renowned for his miraculous healing brachos. Though he passed away in 1873, people still visit to his kever seeking yeshuous and comfort. 

Strong Foundations

As we speak, it becomes clear that these holy people on the wall are the wellsprings feeding the Rebbetzin’s inner strength; her work continues a mission begun by her parents and ancestors. Her father was the chief orthodox rabbi of Szeged, the second largest city in Hungary. Rabbi Jungreis took it upon himself to combat the rampant assimilation in Szeged, building a beautiful Orthodox shul and mikveh, and making his home a place for all Jews to congregate. 

The Rebbetzin as a little girl with her father, Rav Avraham Jungreis

“There would be drivers waiting at the train station to take Jewish passengers to my parents’ home,” she relates. “We didn’t have a large apartment — it was three rooms — but we always found space for guests. My mother had a tiny kitchen but she served hundreds of people.” Many local Jews had abandoned Torah Judaism, but Rabbi Jungreis was determined to reverse the damages — a mission he continued in America.

As the war progressed, Szeged became a collecting point for Jewish young men drafted for slave labor. The Rebbetzin’s father received permission to conduct prayers service for the boys, but he wasn’t allowed to speak to them. So Rabbi Jungreis would weave messages from the boys’ families into the prayers and sing them in Hebrew. However, the Rebbetzin’s father felt he had to do more to save these suffering young boys. He gathered some doctors and implored them to come up with a means for disqualifying the boys. They produced a medication that mimicked the effects of a contagious disease. But smuggling it to the young men remained a challenge. The Rebbetzin volunteered to do it. No one would search her — she was a child. The medicine was sewn into the Rebbetzin’s coat and she would accompany her father on his visits. 

Years later, she recounted this story in a speech to UJA young leadership in New Jersey. A young man raised his hand and asked, “How old is the Rebbetzin?” 

The crowd was shocked; what an inappropriate question! But the Rebbetzin countered, “Why do you ask?”

“Because my father was saved by medicine like that in Hungary during the war,” he replied.

“After he said that, I immediately knew who he was — he looked just like his father,” the Rebbetzin says. “The father survived and become a diamond dealer in Belgium.”

As conditions in Szeged worsened, the Jungreises had little more than brachos to nourish their guests. Eventually the family was deported to Bergen-Belsen. The Rebbetzin often tells audiences how her father would save crusts of bread for Shabbos and tell the children to imagine they were at home, eating fresh challos, with Shabbos malachim accompanying them. “But where are the angels of Shabbos, Tatteh?” her brother asked. Her father’s eyes streamed with tears. “You, my precious children, are the angels,” he replied.

“It was that knowledge, that I was an angel of Shabbos that enabled me to stand strong despite the abuse, the persecution of the Nazis. I often wonder,” the Rebbetzin continues, “whether the children of our generation ever feel that they are angels of Shabbos — with a purpose and a mission in life.”

After the war, the family hoped to go to Eretz Yisrael, but at the time, Jews without the proper papers were interned in displaced person (DP) camps in Cyprus. Not wanting to spend any more time displaced, they took up an uncle’s offer to go to New York, and boarded the first ship out of Europe. It went to Norfolk, Virginia — they’d had no idea how far it was from New York. A policeman saw the bedraggled, penniless family in old-fashioned Jewish garb and brought them to the president of the Jewish community, who fed them and put them on a train to New York.

At Penn Station, the same scenario repeated itself, except that the policeman spoke a few words of Yiddish. “We all burst into tears,” the Rebbetzin writes in Life is A Test. “Imagine, a policeman who was a Jew! This was something that we, who associated a uniform with brutality, had never before encountered.”

The family settled in a basement in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Rebbetzin enrolled in Bais Yaakov, but says her true education was at “Bais Avi” — her father’s house. “My parents came to America with the goal to rebuild, to bring people back to Torah,” the Rebbetzin relates. “They would tell me to gather the children on the block and invite them to our Shabbos seudah. Here I was, living in a basement, wearing shabby clothing; my father spoke very little English. Why would these children want to come? We had no toys, no jump ropes. The only thing we’d ever jumped from were Nazi bullets! Nonetheless all my friends loved coming.”

The Rebbetzin eventually married Rabbi Meshulem Jungreis, another survivor. He became the rav in Paterson, New Jersey and then at Ohr Torah, the only Orthodox shul in North Woodmere. Woodmere was then barren of Torah, but the young couple set about doing all they could to build their new community. The Rebbetzin gave shiurim to women; as her family grew, she’d hold a baby on her lap as she taught, honing her natural speaking talents.

Her husband, Rav Meshulem Jungreis

Raising a family while busy with community responsibilities sounds like a challenging juggling act, but the Rebbetzin dismisses the notion. “I never juggled!” she says. “My whole family was involved. When my children got older and I began traveling, my parents always stayed with them.” The house was constantly filled with people, yet her daughters say they never felt displaced. “We’d come home on Friday and the house would smell of delicious chicken soup,” Chaya Sora remembers. “Our friends would come over, and my mother would tell them stories. They loved her stories! Some were children of survivors, but their parents never spoke about the war.”

Raising a family while busy with community responsibilities sounds like a challenging juggling act, but the Rebbetzin dismisses the notion. “I never juggled!” she says. “My whole family was involved. When my children got older and I began traveling, my parents always stayed with them.” The house was constantly filled with people, yet her daughters say they never felt displaced. “We’d come home on Friday and the house would smell of delicious chicken soup,” Chaya Sora remembers. “Our friends would come over, and my mother would tell them stories. They loved her stories! Some were children of survivors, but their parents never spoke about the war.”

“People would ask me,” says the Rebbetzin, “ ‘Why are you telling your children stories about Jewish suffering that make them cry?’ ‘All children cry,’ I would respond. ‘But some cry for toys, candy or imaginary narishkeit, instead of shedding tears for Yiddishe neshamos! This is real.’ ”

A Leap of Faith

In the early 1970s, as the world simmered with political revolution and feminist revolution and technological revolution, the Rebbetzin decided it was time for a Torah revolution. She would be breaking ground: “There weren’t any women doing kiruv in America back then,” she reminds us. “Kiruv itself was a new idea.” 

She asked her father to take her to gedolim for brachos for her undertaking. They visited Rav Moshe Feinstein, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Henkin, and many others. “Rav Henkin was sick then; he was attached to IVs and could no longer see. After giving me his brachah and assuring me success, he asked that I relay to our people that which I witnessed. Pointing to his blind eyes, he said, ‘You must learn Torah while these two pieces of flesh can see!’ ”

The young rebbetzin decided that if she was going to start a revolution, she better do it big. She chose a secular venue which would attract the unaffiliated, reach multitudes of people, and make headlines: Madison Square Garden.

But she didn’t want to sell tickets. “Too many people had a bad taste about buying tickets because their shuls made them buy tickets to Yamim Noraim services,” she says. “Torah should not be converted into a business and should not be for sale.”

Where does a rebbetzin find the gumption to sign a contract to rent out Madison Square Garden? “I had no money, no organization at the time,” she admits. “But how else was I going to bring people to Torah and mitzvos?” Her father reassured her: “If you do it l’Sheim Shamayaim, Hashem will be with you.”

Running from one college campus and synagogue to the other, the Rebbetzin gathered her forces. By the time the event took place in November 1973, Madison Square Garden wasn’t just booked — it was overbooked. “Mitzvah Booths” lined the hallways of the Garden — the Rebbetzin prepared literature on many mitzvos and trained counselors to distribute them and answer questions. 

“My mother can speak for two hours straight with no notes,” Chaya Sora remarks. The Rebbetzin’s prodigious oratorical skills have been compared to top inspirational speakers in the world. Pesukim and Torah wisdom pour from her, and her rock-solid conviction and fiery enthusiasm lend charisma to her stage presence.

The Madison Square Garden preparations culminated in the founding of the Hineni Heritage Center, which met in Rabbi Abraham Jungreis’ shul until a building on West End Avenue was acquired in 1989. It was also the start of a steady stream of invitations to speak all over the world. Daughter Slovie has likened the Rebbetzin’s ability to keep traveling to a mother’s devotion: “She may be exhausted, but when she gets out and sees the crowd, the adrenalin just pumps in. She’s like a mother with a new baby — as tired as she might be, if the baby is crying, she’ll get up and answer its needs.”

When the Hineni center opened, the Rebbetzin’s entire family pitched in. “I came home from high school one day, and my mother told me, ‘You’re going to give a Pirkei Avos shiur,’ ” Chaya Sora says. “I said, ‘Me?’ But, of course, nobody tells my mother no! In the end it went very well!” Today, all four of the Rebbetzin’s children teach at Hineni. Sons Rabbis Yisroel and Osher are the spiritual leaders of Hineni, while daughters Chaya Sora Gertzulin and Slovie Wolff conduct a variety of classes and programs.

The Rebbetzin’s father would also speak at Hineni classes. In his last years, he suffered from many ailments but he never allowed illness to keep him from his people. To the very last year of his life, the Rebbe made efforts to teach Torah. And he was always looking to make shidduchim and bless others.

The Rebbetzin inherited her father’s proclivity for matching people up. “The ‘shidduch crisis’ of this generation has been self-created,” she maintains. “There’s too much pressure, too much investigation and emphasis on money. Many young people don’t even know what they need.” 

She offers an example: a young woman once declared she wouldn’t marry anyone who didn’t fulfill five criteria: smart, wealthy, attractive, a sense of humor, and athletic. (“I like tennis,” she said.) The Rebbetzin told her, “Those are five big zeros. Zeros without a digit in front are gurnisht mit gurnisht. And for a shidduch, you not only need a digit, but a Torah digit.”

“What is a Torah digit?” the shocked woman asked.

“The first letter of the Torah — beis — and the last letter of the Torah — lamed. Together these two letters spell lev, a heart. For a shidduch, the criteria must be that all important Torah digit, a good heart. Without that, all the other qualities can turn into suffering.

“If a good heart is missing, that handsome face can turn ugly overnight. That money can be used for control and the sense of humor can be used for ridicule.”

The young woman nodded in understanding. “But where can I find such a man?” she asked meekly.

“At Hineni,” the Rebbetzin said. “At our Torah seminars, you can find that special Torah digit.”

And sure enough, she found her bashert.

Kiruv 50 Years Later

Kiruv workers sometimes express the concern these days that it’s harder to reach young people. Those of us born half a century ago — even in non-frum homes — typically retained fond memories of grandparents who spoke Yiddish and kept kosher and retained some Torah values. But the next generation or two can’t draw on such nostalgia. 

When I put this to the Rebbetzin, she shakes her head. “Often memories of a bubby or zeide are counterproductive!” she declares. “If they weren’t really observant — like if they kept kosher at home but ate nonkosher outside — it just looks like hypocrisy. Sometimes it’s better to start with a clean slate.”

Does she ever run into trouble speaking to college students, given the anti-Israel slant on campuses? “Eretz Yisrael can only have meaning with Torah,” she says. “If you take away Torah, it just becomes politics.” What about campus Holocaust deniers? “No one starts up with me,” she says defiantly. Slovie and Chaya Sora exchange a look and burst out laughing. “No one starts up with our mother!” they chorus.

“The Nazis tortured us. They persecuted us,” the Rebbetzin says, anger still smoldering after all these years. However, she never questioned Hashem’s gezeirah. “Question the Ribbono shel Olam? No human being can dare to do that!” she exclaims.

The Rebbetzin does allow that American society has changed; while in the 1960s, people searched for spirituality and joined strange cults, today young people are looking for money and fun. They’ve been infected by materialism and selfishness. “The whole world is contaminated with it,” she mourns. “There’s a saying in Yiddish: as the goyishe world goes, so the Jewish world goes. We are not immune from outside influences. But we know that in the days before Mashiach there will be tremendous immorality, a spiritual vacuum.”

These days, says the Rebbetzin, “We have to open the hearts and minds of our people and inspire them to search for something higher and connect them to Hashem.”

When people come to Hineni seeking guidance, they are told they must first attend a Torah class. “It is the Torah that will show them the way,” the Rebbetzin says. Only afterward can they see the Rebbetzin privately — which means she stays in her office until the wee hours of the morning talking to people.

I ask if people ever feel bad when she introduces them to Torah and they realize how much they were missing for so many years. She counters with a positive example. “There was a man who used to come to my classes at Hineni. He was 85 years old, a graduate of Harvard but totally illiterate in Judaism,” she recalls. “He would sit in the front row because he was hard of hearing. By the time he passed away, he was studying Gemara and writing Torah articles.”

“Most people are just happy to find their roots, happy to find a family,” Slovie says. In fact, over the years Hineni has offered people not just Torah, but the whole Jungreis family. People are invited for Shabbos, taken under the Rebbetzin’s wing, and showered with warmth and loving advice. 

Raising Great Children

Slovie and Chaya Sora describe the home in which they grew up to me, how it was filled with warmth, love, and activity, yet a strong, old-fashioned sense of limits. “We could never say no to our parents,” Slovie says.

The Rebbetzin and her husband modeled Torah values, hard work, and ahavas Yisrael. “Our parents never took vacations,” Chaya Sora says. “The phone would ring at all hours of the night.”

“We never saw our mother just sitting on a couch and relaxing,” Slovie says. “She loves people, and she’s a woman on a mission — that’s her nourishment, her chiyus.”

The Rebbetzin puts it this way: “The tachlis of life is to give and give, and give some more! Sadly in our society, people feel entitled and never indebted so giving is a foreign concept. As Jews we have to raise our children as givers, to think of others first, to welcome people with warmth and love, and reach out to them with kindness.”

She reminds Chaya Sora of her childhood birthday parties, always held in the succah — her birthday was on Succos — with all the local children. The Rebbetzin would order jelly apples for a treat, but Chaya Sora couldn’t take until everyone else had received. “Often we’d run out and I wouldn’t get one, but I didn’t think twice about it,” she says, her cheerful personality clear proof she never felt deprived. “It was a way of life.”

A woman once approached the Rebbetzin for help because her teenage daughter had become a leader in the Jews for J movement. The cult wouldn’t allow the Rebbetzin to speak to her, so she went to the girl’s house one night and waited for her to get home. “When she turned on the light and saw me, she freaked!” the Rebbetzin says with a smile. “I gave her a hug and said Shema with her and soon her Yiddishe neshamah opened up.

“I was able to convince her to come back to New York with me, and she lived with us for three years until we found her a shidduch. Not one of our children ever resented her. On the contrary, they all embraced her with love. She became part of our family, and so it was with many others. We are Am Yisrael, one big mishpachah.”

These days parenting experts talk a lot about self-esteem, but the Rebbetzin dismisses this as “psychobabble.” “The way to feel good about yourself is to do good things!” she says. “Don’t tell a kid he’s great for no reason — he’ll know you’re telling a lie. We have to know we’re dust and ashes, while also bearing in mind that the world was created for us and we have to make it a better place.

“The secular world thinks that the goal in life is to be happy. We Jews believe that the goal in life is to be good. It is only through goodness that happiness can be achieved. That’s why on Rosh Hashanah we wish each other a Shanah Tovah — a good year — rather than a happy year.” 

Frequently, rabbis and community leaders send “at risk” kids to the Rebbetzin. When asked what she thinks is responsible for so many youth going astray, she responds, “Today it’s impossible not to go off! We live in an olam hatumah!”

But she doesn’t believe in cutting children off completely from the realities of today’s world. “If you shut kids out completely, then when they’re hit with it, they’ll collapse,” she maintains. “Instead, parents have to immunize their children against immorality, so they know how to withstand it. The children should be able to confront immorality and say, ‘Are you kidding? That’s not for me! I have Torah—why would I want that?’ ”

It’s not surprising that troubled kids take to her. The Rebbetzin has great persuasive powers, deriving from her unwavering belief that Torah is true and that every Jew is a precious neshamah. She doesn’t care about the color of one’s shirt, or the style of one’s head covering — or lack thereof. Her intense gaze focuses only on the neshamah, and how to help it connect to Torah.

Chatting with the Rebbetzin and enjoying the unique ambiance is a pleasure. But it’s late, and other obligations call. The Rebbetzin doesn’t like people to leave empty-handed; she insists on giving me a copy of her book and even offers a challah for Shabbos. 

I’m a writer, so I can never resist a book. But what I really wanted — and receive — is one of her brachos

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