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September 21, 2014 / 26 Elul, 5774
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Converting Crushing Experiences Into Wisdom And Hope


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Most of you, my dear readers, are aware that many moons ago I was privileged to establish Hineni – the first kiruv (outreach) – movement, with the exception of Chabad. However, what many of you may not know is the extent to which Hineni mushroomed throughout the years and how it has expanded its activities to include many areas of outreach that range from beginners’ Torah classes to in-depth study of the Talmud, from small tots programs to shidduch introductions, from young couples to parenting seminars, from Shabbatons to High Holy Day Services, and from in-house to office and home study classes, to live webcasts that reach Jewish communities throughout the world.

These multi-faceted programs are, Baruch Hashem, conducted by my own children. My sons, as well as my daughters, are equally involved, and each, in his or her own unique way, has contributed to this phenomenal achievement that reaches the hearts and souls of our people.

Recently we celebrated our annual Women’s League Luncheon, and among our honorees were some spectacular young mothers who study Torah with my daughter, Slovi Wolff, author of, “Raising a Child With Soul.” As a result of the classes, these young women have illuminated their homes with the light of Torah and are imbuing their children with the spirit of our timeless heritage.

The following article is a transcript of the speech that one of our amazing honorees, the distinguished mayor of her town, delivered. I share it with you because it demonstrates how having Hashem in your life can enable you to confront even the most devastating challenges and convert the most crushing experiences into hope, strength and wisdom. I believe that in our turbulent society, this is wisdom we all need to absorb.

Good afternoon and thank you to the whole Hineni family – all of the people that make these great events and Torah classes in our communities happen. Thank you for touching our lives.

When I was a junior in college, a friend of mine was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and I wanted to do whatever I could to help her, so I decided to start an organization to raise money and awareness for people with MS. We had a few parties over the course of a year or two and the money we raised went into a large brown paper bag that sat in my bedroom.

It sat there for a long time. Until I was 22, when I was sitting at my desk at work and felt one side of my body go numb. I went to the chiropractor thinking it was a pinched nerve. It was not, and within the year, I myself was diagnosed with MS. I immediately thought back to the brown paper bag and realized that I had misplaced the money that we had raised for the MS charity. That moment I wrote a large check to the National MS Society.

G-d sends us messages in funny ways, middah k’neged middah – measure for measure. I hadn’t fulfilled my commitment to the charity, and now I would learn first-hand how needy it was. I was embarrassed that I was so irresponsible. I quickly learned the power of Tzedaka and the lesson of being a good fiduciary of other people’s money. In fact, it’s one of the most important things that I do as a mayor.

I was obviously devastated when my diagnosis was made. I was only 22 years old and, until that point, I thought I was blessed. 1) I had thought of myself as graceful, but now I didn’t know if I’d one day be unable to walk or dance or see. 2) I had a top Wall Street job – a job that fed on adrenaline, stress and intensity. I had spent my life building toward this career and now I would have to consider giving it up because MS is triggered by stress and fatigue. 3) I had always dreamed of having a big family of my own, but now I wondered if anyone would love me since I was so “imperfect” – and would I even still be able to have kids with MS?

At 22 and living on my own, I wasn’t religious/practicing. I had grown up traditional, gone to yeshiva all my life, but the person I was dating at the time wasn’t supportive of my keeping kosher and Shabbat and I just wasn’t strong enough at the time to push the issue. But after I was diagnosed, I wondered if G-d was still watching over me. How could it be if such a terrible thing could happen to me?

It was around that time that I had a conversation with my grandmother who, Baruch Hashem, is here today. My grandmother (I call her Bubby) is Orthodox and also a survivor of the Holocaust. She was sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, but they malfunctioned that day. Her parents, siblings, cousins and friends were murdered. Some people who survived the Holocaust turned away from G-d after the war. In a quiet moment, I sat down with my grandmother and asked her how it was that she was still religious after going through such a torturous experience. And she said to me, “Honey, I lost so much in the war, I couldn’t bear to lose G-d, too.”

Fast forward to today: I continue to fight my disease aggressively and thank G-d feel terrific… I found my husband – truly the man of my dreams. I like to say he has a Wall St. Journal in one hand and a Torah in the other. I have, thank G-d, delicious children. I have a very spiritual and religious home and have the distinct privilege to teach my children to recognize G-d’s blessings at every turn.

Most people I know do not know that I have MS. This is the first time in the 10 years that I have been living with MS that I am publicly sharing it. It was extremely difficult for me to write this speech. I am thankful and clearly see the hand of G-d in the abundance of therapies and medicine available for MS. I no longer feel abandoned. In fact, I see the tremendous blessing G-d has brought my family and me in many ways through my diagnosis.

Before – I was too busy to appreciate the people and blessings around me. I figured I would have time to focus on it some day in the future when I was done building my career.

I now take no day for granted. I now always make time for my family and friends. I always try to make the most out of every moment I have with the people I care about – to tell them and show them how important they are to me. No regrets. None of us have a guarantee of what tomorrow will bring. It’s a banality, but I now know that I have to live each day to its fullest. We were all created by G-d with a special purpose.

I now know that I have to be laser focused with the healthy time I have to ensure that I do what I am meant to do here. Whether it’s helping friends get through difficult situations – like I did …Whether it’s donating money to medical research – a cause that might not have been so important to me if I hadn’t been diagnosed with a neurological illness.

I know I have to be involved with organizations like Hineni that help us focus on what’s ultimately important in life despite all of our hectic schedules – another lesson I had to learn the hard way. The test I now apply to every day of my life is, “Am I using whatever skills and resources I have to achieve what G-d wants me to accomplish here?”

As you all know, I am now a mayor. I did not seek this position out. I am an accidental mayor. Most people who are mayors first aspire to be a mayor. Next, they become a trustee of the village board and then rise to the position of deputy mayor before they finally run for mayor. They rise up slowly through the ranks. In my case, when my family moved to my town, there were a lot of problems. I would often return from board meetings and cry to my husband. One day, I finally said to myself, “No more crying. I’m going to fight them.”

Over a three-year period, I became an expert on government and citizens’ rights. Through that knowledge, I, along with a small group of residents, got organized and started a civic association so that no one would feel helpless again. We successfully fought some of the more problematic policy issues and eventually replaced the mayor and two trustees with our candidates. That story is a speech unto itself….

At the time, it was not obvious to me that I should run for mayor. Remember – my test for myself every day is: “Am I doing what G-d means for me to do here?” The Torah teaches us “Aseh lecha Rav – Make for yourself a rabbi – a guide.” In this instance, I called Slovie and asked for her guidance.

Slovie asked me three questions when I asked for her advice: 1) “Is my husband OK with it?” – Yes. 2) “Will it make me a less patient mother?” – Doesn’t everything? 3) “Do I feel that I have the skills to be successful in this position?” I walked her through my resume and assured her that I could handle the finance, strategy, and the legal aspects of the position. But ironically, we didn’t talk about the most important skills that have informed my tenure: Torah values.

Not a day goes by that I am not tested by the wrong path. There are opportunities to become arrogant, to hear only one side of a story, to be catty and gossip, and to lose my cool when someone is incredibly difficult and nasty. But instead, I am constantly guided by the importance of humility, empathy, encouraging people to be good neighbors and avoid strife, and the pursuit of truth and justice. So, yes thankfully, Slovi, armed with these Torah values, I do feel I can handle the position.

Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers, teaches, “Ba’makom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish – In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” In other words, when no one is leading or standing up for truth and justice, you stand up. We all have to do this. There’s a lot of garbage in this world – we see it every day in the media and even in our own lives. We must take leadership in our own homes and distinguish between right and wrong for our own families, and we must do the same in all our interactions, be they private or public, personal or general, we must stay the course.

There is a teaching that women have a special power to invoke the Name of G-d and bless people. I’d like to channel that power and leave you with a blessing: “May G-d grant you the strength to be leaders in your own lives and not wait until tomorrow to become who Hashem destined you to be.

Thank you for this honor.

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