Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, standing on a stage recently in Baltimore, shone with grace. It wasn’t what she wore, it was how she wore it. Her inner grace and sheer presence made her simply stunning. The red velvet curtains that were her backdrop outlined the strength of character on her face and the dignity in her every motion.
Why talk about how she looks, this tiny lioness? Because she is a queen. Because few people get to see royalty in its essence. To me, a queen is like the letter aleph – with one hand stretched above, connecting her to her Source and the other below, giving to her people.
This is Rebbetzin Jungreis. She has spent a lifetime posed exactly in that stance. It’s no accident that her name is Esther, like the queen in the Purim story.
Rebbetzin Jungreis has lived out my fantasy. Or perhaps I created my dreams based on her story.
In 1973, Esther, a young married woman and a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, looked at the state of American Jewry and cried. She thought about what she could do. She thought about how she could help. And all at once this lone woman ran to her father, HaRav Abraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, and said, “I want to fill Madison Square Garden with Jews! I want to gather them together and remind them of who we are. I want to say Shema Yisrael with thousands of my people. I want to bring them home.”
But first, she insisted, she wanted to go to Torah luminaries in order to receive their blessings. She asked her father to take her to Reb Moshe Feinstein, the Satmar Rebbe and many other sages, and they all gave her their berachos.
And that’s how this Little Giant, with no special VIP pass and no fancy titles, booked the great hall and filled it with glory.
Nearly four decades later, Rebbetzin Jungreis was recovering from hip surgery when she sat on a plane for three hours waiting for takeoff. And when the plane didn’t leave the runway, she sat in a car for another four hours on the way to Baltimore. Why? To wake us up.
“Wake up!” she cried. “I look around and I see 1938. I see Jews everywhere sleeping, ignoring the signs.”
She told of finding a 1938 copy of a Warsaw newspaper. “Do you know what I saw there? The Yiddish theatre, advertisements, etc. Nothing – nothing – about the looming holocaust. They didn’t want to see, they didn’t want to know, they were sleeping.
“And now we hear news every day and we say ‘Oh, please, it’s nothing.’ An earthquake in New York? Children being gunned down in school? A hurricane that wipes out homes and electricity for weeks? Tsunamis? Tragedies? We say ‘Oh, please – its just more bad news.’
“God is talking to us; He’s sending us clear messages. My heart is so heavy when I see what’s going on. Why does history have to repeat itself? When will we learn?”
Rebbetzin, we hear you. We ourselves can’t bear it. We know the world has gone crazy, but what should we do?
The Rebbetzin quoted the Talmud, telling us, “There are three things a person must do to ready himself for the End of Days: 1. Make Torah your business. Don’t just take a class – live it. Learn it, love it, practice it, breathe it. Make your life a life of Torah. 2. Do acts of loving-kindness. Step out of the world of me, me, me and ask ‘How can I make my fellow man happy?’ 3. Eat shalosh seudos – the third meal on Shabbos afternoon.”
She reminded us that when the Jews left Egypt, only one-fifth of them survived. “The rest perished in the plague of darkness. Those were Jews who had assimilated. They worshiped the gods of Egypt. They weren’t worthy of leaving. And do you know why? Because in their heart of hearts they didn’t want to go. They didn’t want to leave behind Egyptian culture. Today, we are in the Plague of Darkness. God has even taken away our money – the 21st century god.”
She spoke about loving-kindness and about smiling. “Smile with two eyes, not just with your lips. Put your whole self in the smile that you are giving to another. I learned to smile in Bergen-Belsen. When we arrived there, my father, the tzaddik, said to us ‘kinderlach – children – smile. When grownups see young children smiling it will give them hope.’ And so I learned to smile even when my heart was aching and my stomach growled with hunger.
“A young girl once asked me, ‘Rebbetzin, would you mind if I ask you a personal question? You are always smiling. Where does your smile begin – on your lips or in your heart?’ I thought about it. The answer is it begins on my lips. I try to give my very best to the other person, even though my heart may not be feeling it. Then it travels to the other person’s heart and from there it comes back and warms my own heart.”
She repeated her earlier directive for added emphasis. “Smile with two eyes. Call your parents and wish them a good Shabbos. Look up from your cell phone or computer when a grandparent enters the room.”
She spoke about shalosh seudos. “Do you know why it’s so special? Friday night we have a meal. Who wouldn’t want such a meal? Candlelight, hot food. What a way to end the week. Shabbos morning, it’s nice, it’s wonderful, we enjoy. But shalosh seudos on Shabbos afternoon. Who wants to eat? You’re full. That meal you eat for Hashem. That meal you eat because it gives Hashem pleasure. It’s not for your stomach or your pleasure, it is in honor of Hashem.
“You know, in my neighborhood on Shabbos afternoons I give a talk about the parshah. Afterward I walk home. And it’s a long walk. When I get home, I’m tired. I’m a widow; I live alone. I would like to take a rest. But you know what I do? I take my two little challah rolls and I make a berachah on them and I eat – for my King. I eat for Him and I recite Psalm 23: ‘God is my Shepherd I shall not lack…. ”
The Rebbetzin cried as she spoke. She begged and she pleaded. She rebuked us and she loved us.“ I love you all, you are all my children, ” she said. She blessed us again and again, as if no amount of blessing would be good enough for us.
And then, having held the audience spellbound for a heart-stopping hour, she left – to the thunderous applause of 400 wide-awake souls.
About the Author: Rivka Malka Perlman is director of WOW! – a division of Etz Chaim, Baltimore.
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