Growing up in North Woodmere, Long Island in the 1960’s was tantamount to being immersed in a spiritual wasteland. My parents, Rabbi Meshulem and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis were the rabbi and rebbetzin of Congregation Ohr Torah, the only Orthodox synagogue in the area at that time. Since there were no yeshivas for me to attend locally, my parents sent me to a yeshiva in Queens called Ohr Yisroel.
The problem was that there were no buses from North Woodmere to the yeshiva. I would have to meet the bus on Peninsula Blvd. at a gas station (which has now become a 7-Eleven). So, as I embarked on my first day in the 3rd grade, my dad accompanied me to the bus stop at 7:15 am. We waited there for the bus. I was told there would be no seats on the bus, so I brought along my attaché case to use as a seat. As I was waiting for the bus, a palpable sense of trepidation and anxiety engulfed me. The moment had finally arrived in which I was about to begin this new experience at a school that I had no familiarity with at all. Terrifying thoughts raced through my mind at blinding speed. No friends…new school…a brand new venture.
As the old rickety yellow school bus pulled up to the Mobile gas station, I turned around and waived to my father. As I boarded the bus I noticed 60 strange eyes staring at me. As my fears continued unabated, I needed one last measure of security, so I turned around once again to wave to my dad as he waved back at me. The bus pulled away and I began to cry.
As is the tradition in the Jungreis family, my father gave me instructions to make sure I took the first desk in the classroom so I would be sitting right in front of the rebbe. I walked into my classroom, found the desk my dad told me to go to and I sat down. I did not know one student. Very scared, I sat there waiting for the class to begin.
The rebbe walked in, sat in his chair and called out attendance. I looked up and glanced to the right of the classroom door through a clear glass window and there he was. My father’s regal appearance could not be missed. He stood there waving to me through the window and mouthed the words “everything will be okay.” Unbeknownst to me, my father had seen me crying through the window of the bus and decided to follow the bus in his car to my new school. He had wanted to ensure that his son arrived there safely and did all that he could so that the memories of my very first day would not be entirely traumatic.
My father was known as a gentle giant; a man steeped in kindness whose words and manner of speaking reflected the radiance of his loving soul. He spent his days and nights passionately imparting the great lessons of the Torah and authentic spirituality to the community of North Woodmere. A vast majority of these people had no prior formal or informal Jewish education and knew virtually nothing about their majestic heritage.
My father was also renowned for having the broadest of shoulders in the metaphorical sense of the word, and everyone who came to know him viewed him as a pillar of compassion, comfort, inner strength and security. Because he intuitively felt everyone’s pain so acutely, people were naturally inclined to reach out to him during challenging times. They knew he would instinctually comprehend their problems, empathize with them and provide the kind of wisdom and guidance that would serve to help them navigate the often bumpy highway of life.
What can we glean from this narrative? There are times in life when every one of us – all of us for that matter – need a little reassurance that everything will be okay, especially when grappling with the arduous challenges and trials that we are beset with. Whether it be a health crisis, the loss of a loved one, a family feud, a problem child or financial concerns, my father was ever present to allay the manifold fears that grip us all and to reassure us with his warm voice, loving smile and words of Torah wisdom. Hearing the words “everything will be okay” from your parents, the people whom G-d partnered with to bring you into this world, provides an unimaginable level of comfort.