I was recently invited to speak to our Jewish brethren in Australia. Prior to my arrival in Sydney, I received a phone call from a local resident asking if I could find a few minutes during my stay to visit her elderly, ailing father. She went on to explain that as a young man, her father had been in a slave labor camp in Szeged, the city of my birth in Hungary, where my father, Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt’l, was the Chief Orthodox Rabbi. Prior to our deportation to the concentration camps, the Hungarians conscripted all the Jewish young men for slave labor, and our city, Szeged, was one of the major gathering places in which they were assembled prior to being shipped out.
As the rabbi of the city, my father was able to obtain permission to visit these boys daily to bring them messages from home and impart words of Torah and hope. My father would also smuggle in medication and letters from family, but since he was searched, this was no easy task. My mother came up with the novel ideal of sending my brother and me along and secreting these items in the linings of our coats, so at a tender age, we were initiated into the meaning of ahavas Yisroel (love of fellow Jews). We saw with our own eyes the total mesiras nefesh – commitment – of our parents to every Jew, and that experience left an indelible impression on our souls. My father not only visited those young men, but he also managed to obtain permission for them to have brief furloughs so that they might visit our home. My mother cooked and baked for them while my father studied Torah with them, enveloped them in his love and blessed them.
From time to time in my travels throughout the world, I meet an elderly Yid who was one of those boys to whom my parents so caringly reached out in that time of darkness, and now I discovered that Sydney, Australia would be no exception. My caller related that her father had been among those who came to us regularly so that he might put on Tefillin. She went on to say that he remembered me opening the door for him and running excitedly to my father exclaiming, “The soldier has come to put on Tefillin!” Memories rushed back. It happened so long ago, but for all that, it could have been today. Those painful years remain deeply etched on my heart.. “B’ezras HaShem,” I told her, “of course I will visit your father. It will be my privilege to do so.”
And so it was that on my first day in Sydney, I went to visit Reb Modche Weiss. He related story after story about the amazing chesed of my parents. My eyes brimmed over with tears. To hear stories about your mother and father who are now in Gan Eden is like receiving personal regards and brachas – blessings – from them.
I share this with you so that we may remain ever mindful of the importance of imparting a story about a zeide or a bubbie, a mother or a father. If you knew someone’s parents or grandparents, if you experienced their chesed and Torah, don’t keep it to yourself. Search out their children and relate it to them. It will give them new chiyus – life.
Stories about my parents and grandparents are legion. They energize me and inspire me to continue to speak, teach, and reach out. But it is not only the past that invigorates me. The amazing people I meet in every Jewish community give me the incentive to go on. I visited Sydney at the invitation of the Jewish Learning Center founded and directed by Rabbi David Blackman, a young, dynamic force and powerful Torah teacher. In Melbourne, this same program is led by a group of committed balabatim spearheaded by Merv Adler. They are all businessmen who voluntarily give of themselves to organize Torah programs for the Jewish community.
I last visited Sydney approximately 27 years ago, when Rabbi Michael Alony invited me to speak and help found Hineni of Australia, and now I was truly elated to learn that during these past 27 years, Hineni has flourished and grown, not only in Sydney, but in Melbourne as well. It was sheer nachas for me to meet young people who proudly identified themselves as members of the Hineni of Australia group. I met some of these young people at a Shabbos evening dinner celebrated at the Central Synagogue, where Rabbi Levi Wolff (formerly of the United States) is the loved spiritual leader. The young “Rosh” – Head of Hineni told me that the original bumper stickers that I brought with me more than a quarter of a century ago are still in their office.
In Melbourne, a woman approached me and told me that her son, who is one of Hineni’s leaders (but was currently out of the country) asked her to come to convey appreciation for the work of Hineni. It was through Hineni that he and his group became shomrei mitzvot, and Baruch Hashem, he plans to marry very shortly and establish a true Torah home.
Hineni in Melbourne is hosted in the beautiful synagogue of Rabbi Heilbrun, who graciously
welcomed us and made us feel at home. It is a special feeling of nachas to see such peiros – fruits of our labors.
During my week in Australia I had the zechus to address constantly growing audiences – the young as well as the old. But more than the size of the audiences, the genuine commitment to Torah and Yiddishkeit – the sincere yearning to learn and do more, was most exhilarating. We are living in incredible times. Our people are coming home.