For several weeks now I have been running a series on the plight of parents whose children who have “fallen through the cracks” and the painful ramifications both suffer.
I hope to conclude the discussion with this column.
Last week I wrote of the concerns of parents who have children of marriageable age and fear they will not be able to make shidduchim for them because of that one troubled child. This week, as promised, I will focus on the apprehensions of parents who agonize about the potential negative effects of such a child on their siblings.
My own children grew up in a totally secular neighborhood. They were the only ones who were shomer Shabbos and went to yeshiva. My boys were the only ones who wore yarmulkes and my girls the only ones to wear tzniusdik (modest) clothing.
And yet they were friends with the children in the neighborhood, who even joined us at our Shabbos table. Instead of those children influencing our sons and daughters, our children knew they had to influence them. As a matter of fact, just recently I spoke at an Orthodox synagogue in which one of those boys is very active and an officer of the board. Baruch Hashem, he is totally shomer Shabbos, as are his children, who are all yeshiva students. And it all started because of his friendship with my son.
Nowadays, however, such a situation would be a rarity. Today’s observant parents would be fearful if their children were to befriend those who are not religious lest their secular peers influence them and lead them astray.
So how did I do it?
From a very tender age, I charged my boys and girls with a mission. They had to do whatever they could to be m’karev – to reach out to – their secular counterparts. My son was four years old when he befriended the four-year-old son of our neighbor. They played together regularly. One day, my son approached me and said, “Ima, could you teach ____’s housekeeper how to bentsh licht for Shabbos [kindle the Sabbath candles]? His mommy doesn’t want to do it.”
When I explained why that couldn’t work, my little boy did not give up. Next thing I knew, his friend put on a yarmulke and then he went on to join him in yeshiva. How did that happen? As mentioned above, I had fortified my children with a sense of mission that I didn’t allow them to forget. When guests joined us at our Shabbos table, my children knew they had to be on their best behavior lest these people form the wrong impression of those who are Torah observant.
Frankly, I have difficulty understanding how it is that in families where there is one son or daughter who “fell through the cracks,” parents do not charge their other children with reaching out and influencing the rebellious sibling.
Oh, I am well aware of the arguments people put forth – “It’s easier to follow the bad than the good”; “It’s easier to fall through the cracks than to stand up straight and walk on the path of Torah”; “It wouldn’t work, my son/daughter is too far gone – he/she just won’t listen”; “If they try, they will just end up in a nasty fight”; “Rebbetzin, you don’t begin to understand what goes on in our house – my son comes home at crazy hours and don’t know where he was or what he is up to, he drinks, he smokes….”; “You can’t imagine how he/she dresses. It’s an embarrassment!”
I know all that, yet I will tell you the power of love is the only thing that can reach them. Yes, the power of unconditional love and kindness goes a long, long way – and I speak from real experience rather than from some abstract theory. And this holds true for yeshivas as well. When rebellious children are ousted and cast into a jungle, they can only fall further. When their classmates shun them and make them feel like lowlifes, they can only deteriorate and become that which they have been told they are.
I always wonder why these same classmates cannot be spoken to and told of Hashem’s sorrow when a Yiddishe neshamah is lost – when one of His children, so to speak, dies? I always wonder why these classmates cannot be told it is in their hands to try to bring this lost neshamah back to Hashem. Instead of calling this child a “bum,” why can’t we call him a “teire kind” – a precious child – embrace him with a hug and tell him, “You belong to Mamlechet Kohanim – a Priestly Kingdom; your people need you and Hashem loves you, yearns for you, and never gives up on you. You can do it!”
I know some of you may think I am living in a dream world, oblivious to reality. A gadol, a great sage, once said, “I may be dreaming, but I’m not sleeping.” Growing up under the guidance of my saintly parents, I actually saw this dream become reality.
I remember many moons ago, following my family’s internment in Bergen Belsen, we were sent to a DP camp in Switzerland. One day, a group of Polish boys, ranging in age from 17-20, was brought to our camp from Auschwitz. They had seen their parents tortured and cast into the gas chambers and crematoria. They themselves had felt the sting of the whip and had experienced starvation and torture beyond description.
They were all very angry and bitter. They threw away their yarmulkes, didn’t want to know about Torah or mitzvos, and didn’t want to hear the word “Hashem.” They were quartered in a dormitory and every night, my father, the holy sage HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, would visit them. He never admonished or chastised them. Instead, he went from bed to bed, covered them, kissed them, said the “Shema” with them, and whispered “Schluff gezunte heit mein teire kind” – “Sleep well my precious child.” And my mother volunteered for the kitchen and always managed to find something extra for them.
Many years later, I was speaking in a community in Florida when an elderly gentleman approached me. “Esther, you remember me?” he asked. Since he called me “Esther,” I surmised that our connection must go all the way back to my youth, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion of whom he could be.
“Remind me, ” I said.
“I am one of the Polish boys from Auschwitz who joined you at the DP camp in Switzerland. And these are my grandchildren.”
Before me stood seven sweet children. “They all go to yeshiva,” the man continued, “and it’s all due to your parents of blessed memory. I will never forget them!”
You might argue that this was different, that those young people went through the Holocaust. Every case is different, but there is one common denominator that applies in every generation – LOVE.
It is with this approach that I established Hineni and have reached out to our people. This teaching that my holy parents engraved upon my heart has guided me throughout my life. I have often thought how different our Jewish world would be if, instead of anger and disdain, we would learn to follow this path and envelop our children in love and kindness. If, instead of throwing out a child, we would call him aside after class, speak to him softly, embrace him, give him a berachah and tell him he has great potential, that he is a heilige Yiddishe neshamah, he would look at himself differently and not feel he is a bum.
There is yet another option for troubled children – enrollment in a “special school” where they meet other rebellious students. The down side to this is that, lacking positive role models, they very often feed off each other and fall even further.
Not long ago, a young man from a good family was brought to our office by his friend. He was involved with a gentile girl, and everything else that accompanies such a scenario. I invited him to come to my classes. Instead of admonishing him and berating him, I told him how much he was needed by our people, and how Hashem yearned for him to come home. I showed him the beauty of the Torah life he had so irresponsibly rejected.
Slowly but surely, he changed. I tried to convince him to return home. He told me he would never be accepted. I called his father, who was shocked by my call – and, I think, somewhat resentful and uncomfortable that I had become privy to this tragedy in his family. I understood where he was coming from and told him that in these turbulent, pre-messianic times, many of our families are splintered and suffer greatly. Slowly, I convinced him his son was on the mend.
To be sure, it has not all been smooth sailing, but he is on the path. Slowly the wounds are healing – another Jewish child has come home, and a family has become united.
I have dealt with many teenagers who have been cast out of their homes and schools, and once again I must emphasize that the most potent way to reach them is with berachos and love. I am not saying this is easy. It is a terrible nisayon for all concerned. I understand it is easy to be overcome by rage and lose it, but then we have to bear in mind the consequences and ask ourselves what will be accomplished if I yell and scream and call him derogatory names. On the other hand, if I hold my temper, respond calmly and show him I am sad rather than mad, I have a shot at reaching him. Not in vain did our sages teach us, “Who is wise? – He who foresees the future.”
Obviously, our sages were not referring to prophecy, but to foreseeing the consequences of our actions.
I believe there is yet one more issue that needs to be addressed. Some of our children who have “fallen through the cracks” have done so simply because they are not “learners.” They cannot keep up with the demands of the schools, so to call attention to themselves they become “clowns” and are eventually ousted.
My beloved husband, HaRav Meshulem Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, received semicha while still in Hungary and he often told me that in his yeshiva, there was one big beis hamedrash where everyone learned and the weaker students were helped by the stronger ones. One day, a well-known rabbi from Israel came to our community to raise money for his institution. My husband recalled that in his youth this rabbi had studied in his yeshiva and had difficulty grasping the Gemara, but there was always some other student who would assume the responsibility of reviewing the teaching and working with him. As a result, today he is a big talmid chacham – a highly respected scholar and rabbi with a vast knowledge of Torah.
Just recently, I was on my way to speak in Palm Beach, Florida. On the same flight was a distinguished looking man with a white beard, black hat and coat. I noticed there was some foreign object stuck to his coat. I debated in my mind whether I should approach him to make him aware of it or just remain silent. Knowing that a talmid chacham must be careful about his appearance, I decided to go over to him. I said in Yiddish, “Forgive me…” and pointed to the object.
He quickly removed it and thanked me profusely.
“Aren’t you Rebbetzin Jungreis?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you an ainekle of the great Czengerer Tzaddik?”
“Yes,” I said. (My great-great grandfather, the Czengerer Rebbe, was renowned throughout Hungary for the miraculous cures he was able to bring to our people.)
He went on to tell me that one of his very good friends had been afflicted with terminal cancer. The doctors did not give him long to live. Someone told him to go to Czenger and pray at the gravesite of the tzaddik. “Today, ten years later,” he continued, “he is well and enjoying his beautiful mishpacha.”
He paused before continuing. “I will tell you another story, and this one is about me. I give you permission to repeat it because I think it will help many families, but please do not use my name. As a young boy studying in cheder in Hungary, I had much difficulty. I simply couldn’t get it. No matter how hard I tried, the teachings could not penetrate my head.
“My father, of blessed memory, just didn’t know what to do with me. He was full of anguish over it, and my rebbe was very frustrated with me but he always encouraged me and told me to keep trying. He told me to daven that Hashem should help. But still I couldn’t get it. The other boys were advancing and I was nowhere. Then, one day, when no one was around, I went to the Aron HaKodesh and I cried bitterly. I begged Hashem to please help me and pleaded with Him to open my mind and my eyes so that I might understand His holy words – and miraculously, it worked!
“But I couldn’t have done it,” he added, “if not for the support and encouragement of my rebbe.”
I have often thought how different things would be today if we would learn to adopt some of the ways that came so naturally to our zeides and rebbes of yesterday.