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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
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Family Breakdown (Part One)


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

In the past few columns I have focused on the tragic breakdowns in our families that have become all too common. The response has been overwhelming. I’ve featured a couple of those responses, but it would take weeks to run all the letters and e-mails that have come in. This week I will share some of my own thoughts on the subject.

As most of you know, my family arrived in this country after the Holocaust. We came from Bergen Belsen, where we saw and experienced satanic evil. Our bodies and souls were exhausted. The strength had ebbed out of us, but our emunah, our faith in Hashem, never ebbed.

My saintly father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, imbued us with a mission: to rekindle the light of Torah that once illuminated the shtetls of Europe. Our hearts reverberated with hope – hope of reigniting that eternal light from Sinai that Hitler was determined to extinguish for all eternity. Yet with all that, my saintly mother, Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis, a”h, looked with fear at our new surroundings.

“How can parents raise children in this country?” she asked fearfully.

Having come from a place where starvation was our daily fare, where vermin and rodents were our constant companions and where the silence of the night was shattered by pitiful, anguished cries of the suffering, what could my mother have seen that prompted her to ask that question – that made her fearful of America?

Surely she should have exulted in this blessed country. She should have been at peace in the knowledge that now we would not go hungry, that we would sleep in beds with clean blankets, pillows and sheets, that our nights would be silent and peaceful and that the sun would shine brightly announcing a new day. So what could have made my mother’s heart tremble?

My mother had a quick eye and often spoke like a surgeon. She would cut to the source of the problem and without embellishment identify the festering tumor. And so it was that even when no one else saw it, she pointed to the disease that was infecting America: the breakdown of family, the absence of respect in the parent/child relationship. She bemoaned the fact that parents not only tolerated the unbridled chutzpah of their children but encouraged it, albeit unknowingly. She was ahead of her time and foresaw the tragedy that was about to destroy the solid foundation of family life.

Reverence for parents is the pillar on which faith in Hashem and strong, stable families are built. When it does not exist, the very foundation stones of our lives collapse and crumble. When children are allowed to believe they “know better” and have the right to relate to their mothers and fathers with condescension, the children begin to rule and the parents lose their authority. When chutzpah is regarded as “friendship” – being a “pal” to your children – there is a loss of authority that is mistaken for good parenting. That is what my mother saw and feared.

My father, in his gentle way, always endeavored to find the sunshine behind every cloud, so he tried to reassure my mom. “Dee Ribbonoh Shel Olam vet helfen – Almighty G-d will help us to protect our children in the solid enclaves of Torah,” he said with confidence.

But, tragically, while those mighty walls of Torah insulated many families, many others were infected by our secular culture. The damage was done. Today the disease is everywhere and every individual and family must be vigilant. No one can be confident of immunity.

My mother’s words were prophetic. Family breakdown, alienation between the generations, contempt, anger and dysfunctional relationships are everywhere. The toxic fumes have left devastating damage on not only children but grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles – entire families.

What can we do about it? I’m afraid nothing much that is positive. Yesterday, children felt indebted. Today they feel entitled. Yesterday, parents taught children to speak; today children teach their parents to keep silent.

Yesterday, the young rose in honor of their elders; today the elders rise in honor of the young. Yesterday, children reverently greeted their mothers and fathers; today parents are grateful if their children take a few seconds to look up from their computers and grunt in their direction. Yesterday, adult children tried to attend to the needs of their parents; today parents keep their wallets open and their mouths closed.

Not long ago an elderly lady came to my office. She could hardly speak; her tears were choking her voice. “Rebbetzin,” she gasped, “for the last eight years my son and daughter-in-law have not spoken to me. Last week, their daughter, my sweet granddaughter, was married. I of course was not invited. Nevertheless I gathered my courage and went anyway. I just wanted to give my granddaughter a kiss and wish her Mazal Tov…

At this point the grandmother stopped. She started weeping uncontrollably. When she finally caught her breath, she blurted out, “Rebbetzin, they had a bouncer waiting, he removed me by force! And would you believe it – no one protested. No one spoke up, no one came to my aid.”

I have heard many stories, one more bizarre than the other, but this was a new low and I had difficulty absorbing it.

How is it, I asked myself, that after the unspeakable evil of the Holocaust and nearly 2,000 years of exile, the sin of hatred of Kamtza and bar Kamtza continues to plague us? The pain is too awful to contemplate.

(To Be Continued)

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