I have just returned from South Africa. I’ve always had a special affinity for that country. It goes back to the early ‘70s. I was speaking in Tel Aviv at the Cinerama Theater and when I concluded my message a gentleman jumped on the stage and said, “You must come to South Africa.”
I began to reply in Hebrew but to my surprise he interrupted me and said, “I’m sorry but I do not understand Hebrew.” He went on to explain that he was the president of an umbrella group of synagogues in South Africa and was inviting me to address the community at large. I readily accepted.
I was surprised by his invitation, though; since he didn’t speak Hebrew, he obviously had not understood my speech. “What made you invite me?” I asked. He simply answered, “I saw people cry and I cried with them. I understood without understanding.”
In those days South Africa was an apartheid state. Gatherings were limited. Everyone and everything was under surveillance. Incredibly, however, Hashem made a miracle. We filled the Colosseum (the Madison Square Garden of Johannesburg) and no one bothered us. Additionally, we had SRO audiences everywhere. I fell in love with the people. They were warm, loving and very family-oriented. They embraced our Torah teachings like a sponge absorbs water.
Since that first visit I’ve returned to South Africa on numerous occasions. And on every visit I’ve met people whose parents or who themselves became observant on my very first visit. Over the years, however, that beautiful community has experienced some painful changes. Local conditions prompted a great exodus and families became disconnected and splintered. Today, wherever I speak in the U.S., I meet South Africans. And when I go abroad as well, I always encounter my very special brothers and sisters from South Africa. I recognize them by their accents, which I love, and by their kindly demeanor – including their respect for Torah and their elders.
To some Americans, separation from family is not a problem. In our turbulent, angry society it might even be welcomed. Ours is a generation on the move. Without so much as batting an eye we leave our families – in fact it’s become natural for children to live a long distance from their parents and their extended families. But in South Africa it was and is different. The vacuum is felt.
I was scheduled to speak in South Africa two years ago but there was a happy reason that precluded me from going. My grandson, baruch Hashem, had become engaged. My visit was scheduled for the week of Sheva Berachos. “But Rebbetzin, it’s not the wedding, it’s just the Sheva Berachos,” people said.
Well, we Holocaust survivors are adamant when it comes to family simchas — we have to be there and, more important, we want to be there. A simcha for survivors is not just a simcha for ourselves or our families but an expression of joy for all Am Yisrael. It’s a statement that “Hineni, we are here!” Despite Hitler, may his name be erased, we are here and we will be here, for that is the eternal promise of G-d. So of course I could not miss the Sheva Berachos.
Last year I again was supposed to be in South Africa. I cleared my calendar. There was nothing pressing that would hold me back. But every person who travels the road of life knows that the unexpected is always lurking in the shadows. “Rabos machshovos b’lev ish” – “Many are the thoughts of man but it is G-d’s will that prevails.” This teaching from our Book of Psalms is the story of every man.
I have often observed that in life we worry about so many things. Do we have this insurance policy or that medical plan – what if, what if, what if? There are a thousand and one worries that gnaw at our mind and only in retrospect do we realize that all the stress and tension were for naught; the things we worry about almost never come to pass. But, conversely, something we never could have imagined befalls us. And so it was for me.
As readers will remember, I fell and broke my hip that year during the last days of Pesach in San Diego. The fall left me with pain from which I suffer to this day. When I would take our Hineni group to Israel I was the first to climb every mountain and slide into every cave. It was a piece of cake for me – and now all that changed. Once again, to my disappointment, I had to cancel my trip to South Africa.
But Hashem has His own timetable and He allowed me to make my journey this year. So, cane in hand, off I went.
My saintly father, HaRav HaGoan HaTzaddik Abraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, taught me that sometimes Hashem sends us difficult challenges so that we might share them with others and thereby strengthen them and make their burdens lighter.
It’s a fifteen-hour flight to South Africa, which can be arduous even under the best of circumstances. My children did not want me to go. “It’s just too much for you to sit on a plane for so many hours,” they said. “I’ll get up and walk,” I assured them. But walking on a plane is not like walking a straight path, they argued. There can be unexpected turbulence. The aisles are narrow. No matter how you consider it, it’s not a simple journey.
I was insistent. “I’m going, and as long as Hashem allows me to speak, I will speak. As long as I can walk, even if it’s with a cane, I will walk. I will never stop.”
That long flight was, with G-d’s help, an easy one and I never felt tired. My father’s teaching was always on my mind. “Share, share, share – let others learn from your experiences. Challenges are sent so that we might challenge the challenges.” I invite you to read those words again. Challenge your challenges. Do not be intimated by them. Let them strengthen you, and if you do so you will triumph over them.
I arrived in South Africa and saw an exhilarating Jewish community. What it has accomplished under the dynamic leadership of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is phenomenal, and every Jewish community would do well to learn from it. Five thousand people united in Johannesburg alone under the banner of “Sinai Indaba.” In the local African language “Indaba” means a gathering, a conference.
Unfortunately, most of our people today are so fractious that unity is usually a pipe dream. Everyone has his approach, rabbi, his ideas, but in South Africa Chief Rabbi Goldstein managed to galvanize the population and take them all as a family on a journey to “Sinai.” Young and old, male and female, committed and uncommitted – they were all there.
Once again I was witness to how simple it is to unite a community with words of Torah. Why, then, does it seem so hard to so many? Why can’t we do that which is so simple, especially when it could save our lives? At the end of the day Am Yisrael is one big family. It was not a king or some other earthly ruler who fashioned us into a nation. We are a people of families born to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Our destiny is to be a family.Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
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