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Watching An Extraordinary Rebbetzin Build Lives

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A few years ago at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, we held a Friday night dinner for Beginners, a monthly activity that usually draws about 150 people. On that particular night there were 250 people who packed our Heyman Auditorium. The reason was that Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis joined us for dinner.

I watched with admiration as she addressed the gathering in her own inimitable style: speaking directly to the young people, telling them the truth, and inspiring them to a greater commitment to Torah. What was even more remarkable, however, was watching the Rebbetzin interact with individuals during the course of the evening. Approached cautiously by a participant with a question, she would stop whatever she was doing, make close eye contact with the questioner, and touch the soul of the person.

Often, she would cup a young woman’s face in her hands and, it would appear, penetrate straight through into that person’s inner being. In a sense, her most recent book, Life Is a Test, does just that. She takes our faces figuratively in her hands and talks directly to us, trying to, as she puts it, build lives. This is what her life is all about.

And the book gives us an insight into the way she builds lives.

Life Is a Test is filled with real life stories of people in crisis or in turmoil. The Rebbetzin tells us how she helps these people through the vicissitudes of life including, among others, financial failure, children going astray, difficulties with finding a marital partner, and depression. She reaches them through Torah insights, chassidic stories, personal anecdotes and an appeal to them to find their lives in God, prayer and honest self-reflection.

I have watched this extraordinary woman build lives in our community where she addresses a packed auditorium week after week, teaching the Torah portion and bringing hope, inspiration and courage to hundreds of young people. I have seen her do this on a one-to-one basis and have marveled at her ability to reach deep into a person’s innermost being. Coming from a family of chassidic rebbes in Hungary, she maintains that role in a gloriously impressive way.

Life Is a Test starts with a quote from Moshe Chaim Luzatto in The Path of the Just: “All that befalls us in this world, the good as well as the bad, are tests.” The book is a commentary on that statement. In one example after another from real life, Rebbetzin Jungreis shows how the things that happen to us are tests; not the kind of tests we pass or fail, but tests that reveal to us our mission in life and enable us to realize our full potential.

Drawing on the medieval commentator Nachmanides’s interpretation of the Ten Tests of Abraham, with its climax in the binding of Isaac, the book explains that these tests were not for God’s sake but for Abraham’s. They demonstrated to him the extent to which he was capable of commitment and greatness.

The binding of Isaac was considered to be the ultimate test. The Rebbetzin asks why this is so. Were not some of the other trials to which Abraham was put just as difficult and frightening? She answers that the real test “must hit you where you are most challenged, where it really hurts.” For Abraham, who abhorred child sacrifice and who inveighed against it to the world, who was renowned for his kindness and generosity, the commandment to offer his child as a sacrifice was the most difficult test conceivable. His ability to pass it demonstrated to God, and to Abraham himself, the extent of his commitment.

Consequently, the angel called out, “Abraham, Abraham do not stretch out your hand against the lad, for now I know you are a God-fearing man, since you have not withheld your son Isaac from me” (Genesis, 22:11,12).

And so it is, says the Rebbetzin, with life’s tests. The most important ones are those that require the greatest effort. If one is addicted to smoking, giving up smoking is an ultimate test. If one is constantly losing one’s temper, resolving to be tolerant and understanding is an ultimate test. If one is naturally stingy, giving tzedakah is an ultimate test.

It was a test that led the Rebbetzin to create Hineni, the outreach organization she founded and leads. When she was yet a child, after suffering through Auschwitz, her family made its way to America. Her parents settled in a secular Jewish community where the observances, dress and general conduct of the family were objects of derision rather than admiration.

Had the family lived in a chassidic neighborhood they would have blended in and there would have been no test. In their secular neighborhood Esther Jungreis’s parents urged her to bring her classmates home from school to experience Shabbat and Yom Tov. She began right then to explain to the uninitiated the beauty of Judaism, of Torah, the Sabbath, festivals and prayer. That was the beginning her lifelong occupation: building lives.

Her beloved husband, Rabbi Meshulem Ha-Levi Jungreis, z”l, had the most extraordinary relationship with his wife. Their one area of disagreement, she confesses, was his penchant for collecting papers, notes, speeches, articles and all kinds of written memorabilia. After his passing, she went through his papers and discovered among the many gems the following: “A long life is not good enough, but a good life is long enough.”

Her latest book, like everything else she does in life, demonstrates that she is truly living a long life.

About the Author: Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is spiritual leader of Cong. Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

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