I write this column during the week of Parshas Vayechi, in which our father Yaakov imparts his blessing to his descendants. The Torah teaches that as he was about to give the brachah to Ephraim and Menasheh, the sons of Yosef, he suddenly posed a very strange and troubling question. “Mi eileh? – Who are these?”
We know that to the very last moment of his life, the Patriarch’s mind was sharp. Moreover, Ephraim and Menasheh were his daily Torah study disciples, so what could his questions possibly have meant?
Through his Ruach HaKodesh, Yaakov Avinu had a frightening vision. He saw that in future generations, there would be those who would depart from the derech – the path of Torah, and it was that which terrified him and prompted his question. When however, Yosef assured him that they were his legitimate descendants, his immediate response was “Kachem na eilai – Bring them to me and I will bless them.”
Not only did Yaakov Avinu bless the boys, but the Torah testifies that he kissed and hugged them as well, which leaves us even more perplexed. Could a blessing, a kiss, and a hug be a panacea for abandonment, rebelliousness or assimilation?
The answer to that question of Yaakov Avinu is a resounding “Yes!” If that lost soul is a Yiddishe neshamah, it can never be totally lost, for embedded in every neshamah is the pintele Yid from Sinai, and a brachah, a kiss, a hug from a loving zeidy or bubbie can revive that neshamah in an instant.
Yaakov Avinu’s blessing, his kiss, his hug was so powerful, so all- encompassing, that it has spanned the millennia, transcended the centuries, and kept our people alive and anchored, even in the raging stormy seas of persecution and assimilation.
At the conclusion of last week’s column, I promised to share with you stories that testify that the pintele Yid is as potent and as magical today as it was yesterday. That pintele Yid is so mighty, so all-powerful, that no force on earth can ever extinguish it. Baruch Hashem, I have a thousand-and-one stories that demonstrate this inviolable truth, but for now, I will limit myself to sharing with you just one story that occurred most recently.
About a month ago, I received e-mail from New Caledonia. It was a place I had never heard of before, and I had to do a search on Google until I discovered that it is a small island between New Zealand and Australia. The official language there is French, and their Jewish population (according to Wikipedia) is comprised of just 50 people. Once in a while, a rabbi comes to visit, but other than that, there is no Torah guidance or leadership.
The e-mail that I received was from a young girl of 16 who wrote that she had received a copy of my book, Life Is A Test in French. The book entered her soul and changed her life. She wrote that she would soon have a few weeks of holiday from school and wondered if she could come to New York and study Torah with me.
I immediately responded and assured her that I would be delighted to have her join our Torah classes, but frankly, I never anticipated that she would actually take me up on my invitation. For a 16-year-old girl to make such a journey all by herself and to commit to such a life-transforming decision just on the basis of reading a book… and more – to have her parents approve of such an undertaking, was not a very likely eventuality. So you can imagine my total surprise when, a few weeks later, she appeared.
It was a typical Tuesday night at Hineni. As usual, I was holding my Torah class at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on East 85 Street and Lexington Avenue. At the conclusion of my class, those who wish to talk with me privately queue up. We have had some amazing happenings on these queues.
One evening, a lovely young woman was waiting, and just behind her stood a tall, handsome young man. When I looked up and saw them, something told me that they would make a great couple, so when the girl approached me with some personal questions, I immediately told her that the fellow standing behind her would make a very good shidduch. And a few minutes later, I said the same to him. The rest is history. Today, they have a true Torah home and are the proud parents of the most adorable children.
I relate this story, because I have seen the most wonderful, unexpected events unfold at Hineni. But that which took place on that Tuesday night just one month ago is truly spectacular.
A beautiful, sweet girl approached me. She introduced herself in an adorable French accent and reminded me that she had e-mailed me from New Caledonia…. and now, she had arrived.
“Does the Rebbetzin remember the e-mail that I sent?” she asked respectfully.
“Of course I do,” I said, not quite believing that she had actually come. I gathered her in my arms and welcomed her with joy.
On Tuesday nights, Chayele, a dear devoted friend, always waits until I am ready to leave so that she can help me and walk me to the car. As usual, that night, Chayele was waiting patiently for me to finish. Sensing that she might just be the perfect “American mommy” for our visitor from New Caledonia, I asked Chayele to join us.
It was love at first sight between Chayele and Shulamith- Shirel. They connected in the most amazing way. Incredibly, they even resembled one another in appearance. But it was not only Chayele who felt so special about Shulamith. Everyone who met her was blown away. Her sweet gentleness, her keen bright mind, her commitment to Torah and mitzvos were inspirational. Quickly, she became part of our Hineni family and her presence at our classes was a delight.
How did her journey commence? How did she overcome her secular environment?
As I mentioned earlier, Shulamith was given Life Is A Test in French translation as a gift. She read the book…. it penetrated the innermost chambers of her heart and ignited the pintele Yid in her neshamah and she shared her newly found treasure with her devoted, kind parents.
Even as Shulamith, her family also embraced the book. Her father, a highly respected physician, taught himself and the family to read Hebrew, and her amazing mother, Elisheva, after reading my chapter on 9/11 and the significance of the number “11” in Judaism, wrote a book with 11 chapters testifying to the Jewish soul’s yearning to do teshuvah and reconnect with Hashem. Shulamith, who has great artistic talent, illustrated the manuscript.
Shulamith is an excellent swimmer and is on her school’s swim team. However, when she discovered the Torah laws of tznius – modesty, she swam fully clothed. Her determination to keep the mitzvot was so powerful that it rendered her impervious to the jibes and mockery of her fellow students.
There are myriad more situations that I can share with you that demonstrate how this beautiful Jewish flower bloomed in the spiritual desert of New Caledonia. But that will have to remain, B’Ezrat Hashem, for my next book.
The days passed quickly, and we realized that very soon, Shulamith would have to return – but how could she go back to her old school? How could she survive without Torah? Shulamith was determined to study in a yeshiva, but where?
And then I remembered the wonderful Torah institution, Bais Yaakov of Montreal that has a special program for girls from foreign countries.
Some years ago, my daughter Chaya Sora joined me when I led a group of Israeli college students on a tour to Auschwitz. On Shabbos, while davening in the Warsaw Shul, she spotted a beautiful young girl davening with great concentration. That story, in and of itself, is a spectacular saga, but for now, suffice it to say that Chaya Sora arranged for her to study at the Bais Yaakov of Montreal and today, Baruch Hashem, she is married and I had the great zechus to have made her shidduch.
So it was only natural that once again, I thought of the Bais Yaakov of Montreal for Shulamith. Mrs. Berger, the dedicated director of “Achoseinu” (the program for girls from foreign countries) was coming to the States and Chaya Sora arranged for Shulamith to meet her at the Agudah convention. Once again, the rest is history, and today, our precious Shulamith is a happy student in that outstanding Torah institution.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. Shulamith’s mother, the real aishes chayil of the story, came to visit. It mattered little to her that she came from sunny New Caledonia to the icy cold of Montreal. For this Jewish mother, there was only one source of warmth, and that was the fire of Torah, which she found for her daughter in the halls of Bais Yaakov. Not only is Elisheva committed to the Torah education of Shulamith, but she is determined to offer the same opportunity to her son as well, and she is now actively searching for a fine yeshiva for him.
Why do I share this story with you? Because indeed, this is the “Living Megillah” that my revered father, HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik, Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt’l, was referring to – the homecoming of a nation. Thousands of years of exile, isolation, assimilation, could not extinguish the pintele Yid in our Yiddishe neshamos.
We are witness to Hashem’s promise unfolding before our very eyes: “Even if your remnants be at the other end of the heavens, I shall gather them and bring them home.” Baruch Hashem, we are returning home to the loving embrace of our father, Yaakov.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis