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Family Breakdown (Part Two)


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The response to my columns regarding family breakdowns has been explosive. It is evident that the unfortunate stories touched some sensitive nerves. It was my intention to continue on the theme of last week’s column in which I offered my thoughts on this crisis, but the latest letters and e-mails I’ve received have put a somewhat different twist on the subject.

What has emerged from these communications is a very sad reality: It is not only contemptuous children who are abusive and denigrate their parents; very often parents are guilty of the same thing, as are members of the extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

From early childhood I was aware of the dilemmas, challenges, and struggles that people contend with. My saintly father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, was not only an eminent sage, he was also a man of great compassion who understood the yearnings and fears in every heart. People sought his guidance, his Torah wisdom. I was privileged to hear his compassionate counsel as well as his loving, disciplinary mussar – words of admonishment always dispensed with love. My work in outreach, imparting guidance and advice to people, has always been very much influenced by the teachings I absorbed from my father.

In more than half a century of active outreach I have heard almost every imaginable sort of difficulty, but the cruelty and hatred that lately has infiltrated our family life is a tragedy seldom before seen in our Jewish community.

I wish to share – though I do so with a heavy heart – excerpts from a letter that recently came to my office. Baruch Hashem, we live in a land of bounty. We have been showered with gifts that past generations could only dream of. But instead of being grateful we have become more greedy, more arrogant, more selfish, more demanding, more self-centered. Instead of inspiring members of our family to “fargin,” to be happy for someone else’s attainments, we have encouraged jealousy, which by its very nature converts itself into meanness of spirit.

This meanness is so widespread that we have come to regard it as the norm. But there are times when the stories are so outrageous that even the blind must see and the deaf must hear.

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

I am 84 years old. I am a Holocaust survivor, as was my husband, a”h. We both survived Auschwitz, but our families disappeared in the crematoria. We met in a displaced persons camp, and it was there that we were married. I don’t know if people today understand what that meant. We had no possessions. We didn’t have a penny in our pockets. I didn’t even have a wedding gown. But we had a dream of recreating our families and our people, and despite the fact that we didn’t have a home or a means of earning a living, we prayed that Hashem would bless us with children.

After the birth of our first child, we received a visa to the United States. Our hearts filled with hope, we boarded a ship that would take us to New York.

Soon after we arrived, we learned that my husband’s older brother was alive, and we moved mountains to bring him here. We rejoiced in the knowledge that someone else from the family had survived. Both my husband and I, as well as my brother-in-law, went to night school to learn the language. We worked hard and took any job as long as we could earn a livelihood and support our families. My brother-in-law was also married to a survivor. We saw each other regularly. Our children were not only cousins, they became close friends. We spent all the Yom Tovim together. Pesach was an especially meaningful time.

The jobs my husband and brother-in-law had paid very meager salaries. Then one day my husband came home with good news. One of his friends had told him about this wealthy man who was retiring and looking for someone to take over his business. His only son, a physician, was not interested.

My husband told his brother, and they explored the situation. It’s a long story, but bottom line, the two brothers became partners. Slowly but surely our lifestyles improved. We bought a house we could never have afforded in the past, and a few years later we sold the house and moved to an even better neighborhood.

As my children became young adults, went on to college, married and had their own children, the relationship between the cousins was no longer so harmonious – problems in the business, jealousy, and sibling rivalry now became part of our life. And then my brother-in-law passed away. It came as a shock to all of us. He had been in perfect health.

For a brief moment during the shiva period there was peace and unity, but then the fighting started. The business had been failing. The money my nieces and nephews thought was there simply did not exist, but they refused to believe it. They were convinced that my husband – their uncle – was hiding the money. No matter what my husband said, no matter what the books showed, no one could dissuade them. They insisted my husband and my son hid the money.

They engaged a top attorney and then the nightmare really started. We had no choice but to follow suit. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were thrown away in attorneys’ fees.

And then came the most tragic development of all: when they saw they were getting nowhere, they went to the IRS – and on some unbelievably minor technicalities my husband was indicted.

I am a widow now, but more than being a widow, it is the tragedy of what happened that destroys me. The family that was once united by love is splintered by hatred.

My children and grandchildren have been put to shame. They are haunted by the suffering and anguish that befell their father and grandfather. There are so many ramifications, so much tragedy that resulted from this family feud that I can’t even begin to describe it. I write this letter in the hope that people will wake up and realize the extent of what can happen due to jealousy, greed and hatred.

I invite your readers to consider what happened to us: a man survives Auschwitz and in his senior years his own nephews and nieces place him behind bars. Can there be a greater tragedy?

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