For the past month I’ve been on the road, crossing continents and addressing Jewish communities wherever they are. I go from the airport to the local synagogue or some other venue where people gather.
Invariably I am asked, “Rebbetzin, how do you do it? People younger than you cannot keep up with such a schedule. Travel is so difficult. Don’t you find it exhausting?”
“Exhausting?” I answer, “it’s far beyond that. Travel nowadays has become a nerve-wracking nightmare.”
During these past weeks I have spoken in Brazil, Hungary and Eretz Yisrael. But allow me to describe to you just one small part of what I experienced. There are no longer any direct flights from New York to Budapest, so our travel agent suggested we go through Paris. We had quite a lot of luggage because from Budapest we were scheduled to fly directly to Eretz Yisrael, and the climate on these two continents is totally different. Hungary was bitterly cold and Israel was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave.
I must admit I usually run late. My schedule is so tight that it does not permit me to be early. In addition to packing, there is much to do before I depart, not the least of which is writing this column. So, as usual, we arrived at JFK just in the nick of time. We went through the endless security check, removing our jackets and shoes, etc. etc. and finally, when we arrived breathless at the gate, we discovered that our flight to Paris had been delayed two hours. We tried to explain to the agent that we had to make a connecting flight. “Don’t worry,” she assured us, “they know that. You’ll have plenty of time.”
Finally, we boarded the plane and it started to taxi down the runway, but suddenly, it came to a stop. “We are very sorry for any inconvenience,” came the polite announcement, “but due to the weather, there will be a further delay.” And with this, we were consigned to sit on the runway for another hour.
Would that be enough to aggravate you? Wait; that was just the beginning.
So what do I do to protect myself from stress? I tell myself, Baruch Hashem that I didn’t listen to those who said that I could depart on Thursday night rather than on Wednesday and still arrive in Budapest in time forShabbos. Baruch Hashem, I never forgot the teaching of my revered father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, who was careful never to schedule any travel that would bring him to his destination on erev Shabbos.
“The Satan is on the road erev Shabbos,” he would say, “and places obstructions in one’s path.” So I smiled to myself and in my mind said, “Thank you, Tatie,” and that thought, in and of itself, was calming. B’ezrat Hashem, I would still arrive in Budapest in ample time to speak at the Shabbaton.
Finally we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris – and of course missed our connecting flight. The airport is one of the biggest and most difficult to navigate in Europe, and we were sent from gate to gate, airline to airline, even to Malev, the Hungarian national airline, only to discover there was no longer a Malev desk. Not only were the distances between these gates enormous; the agents were, for the most part, discourteous and arrogant. We called our hosts in Budapest, Adrienn and Robie, who had visited our Hineni organization in New York and become totally inspired and committed. They were at the airport awaiting our arrival and worried as to what could have happened to us. They suggested we take a flight to Vienna where they would pick us up by car.
There were only two problems with that suggestion – our luggage, which was ticketed for Budapest, had yet to be located, and heavy snow was falling in Vienna as in most of Europe.
At another airline counter it was suggested we buy new tickets which would perhaps get us to Budapest on time. We called our travel agent in New York, but there was not much he could do. But before we could even consider purchasing new tickets, we were informed there were no seats available on that flight. The web of aggravation tightened around us. Another thought from my childhood gave me some comfort: “Let it all be a kapporah” (an atonement that would spare us from all other problems).
We finally arrived in Budapest at 1 a.m. – only to discover to our dismay that all our luggage was missing. We were directed to Lost and Found where the agent searched the computer and curtly informed us that she was very sorry but had no idea where our luggage might be.
“Is it still in Paris?” I asked hopefully.
“No,” she responded coldly.
“Then where is it?” I persisted.
“I already told you. It did not come up on the computer. I have no further information to give you!”
“When do you think you will know?” I asked again, and this time there was a definite touch of annoyance in her voice as she said, “If we find it, we will let you know.”
Bear in mind that while we were supposed to arrive in Budapest on Thursday morning, it was now erev Shabbos. I did not have a change of clothing or shoes (I always travel in sneakers). And worse, from Budapest we were scheduled to continue on to Eretz Yisrael, and all our clothing was missing. To console us, the agent offered us a little kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and a T-shirt.
As we left the airport, I once again asked, “When can we expect to get our luggage?”
Again, she repeated, “I cannot tell you. I will be searching, but so far the computer shows nothing.”
How could I go into Shabbos wearing these crumpled clothes? How could I speak before a large audience? Would you agree that this was surely enough to test anyone’s nerves?
Once again, I tried to muster my strength and to say to myself, “Kapporah.”Somehow it will all come out right. Is it not written that he who is on a mitzvah mission cannot fail? And surely, reaching out to our brethren who are on the brink of disappearing in the deep sea of assimilation is one of the greatest mitzvos.
On our way to the hotel we were told that while it had snowed the entire day and stopped on our arrival, heavy snow was forecast through Shabbos. Now I had a new concern. “Will we have an attendance?”
“Oh, Rebbetzin, don’t worry,” Adrienn assured me. “Everyone will come. Nothing will keep them away.”
Just the same, I couldn’t help but worry because I knew that, under the best of circumstances, in countries like Hungary Jewish awareness is so minimal you can consider yourself fortunate if 40-50 people show up.
We fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. In the morning, to our relief, we saw the sun trying to emerge and melt away the snow. We called to see if there was any news of our luggage. “No,” they told us, “we are still searching, but if we locate it [and the word “if” had an ominous ring] we’ll contact you.” At this point we had no choice but to resign ourselves to reality and try to clean and iron our clothes in honor of Shabbos.
When I arrived at the synagogue, I understood the meaning of kapporah. It all paid off. The shul was packed with countless secular young people – a rare sight in European countries where Judaism is disappearing. I very much wanted to address my audience in Hungarian, but while I speak Hungarian my vocabulary is limited since I was deported to the concentration camps at a young age.
I told our hosts I would make a few introductory remarks in Hungarian but would then continue in English, pause after every few paragraphs, and have a translator convey my thoughts. Miraculously, however, no sooner did I start speaking in Hungarian than Hashem gave me the words and I was actually able to dispense with the translator and speak freely.
The response was electrifying. Suddenly, the loss of luggage, the aggravation in Paris, the stress at Kennedy, all disappeared. Nothing was important except the Jewish light sparkling in their eyes. This blessing was repeated at the Shabbos seudah and again motzaei Shabbos when we had a huge gathering in one of Budapest’s theaters. Jews came from all over Hungary and the large hall quickly filled to capacity. We showed our film, “Triumph of the Spirit” which portrays my experiences during the years of the Holocaust. Amazingly, once again I was able to speak in Hungarian and dispense with the earphones that had been prepared for simultaneous translation.
Young and old, men and women – all were awakened. The pintele Yid in their souls became a flame from Sinai. Perhaps not since the Holocaust had there been such a gathering of Jews in Hungary. I’ve been receiving letters from our Hungarian brethren who are embarking on a life of Torah and mitzvos.
Would I do it again?
Of course. When you weigh the joy and berachah of seeing Jewish people who only yesterday were on the brink of spiritual death come to life again; when you see our Torah saturating their hearts, kindling their souls with commitment and faith, aggravation is replaced by spiritual joy, exhaustion by exhilaration and despondency by energy.
Would I do it again? Am I ready to undertake the next journey? Yes. It’s already set.
Am I tired? Of course. But the fulfillment in my heart is much more powerful than any exhaustion, and I believe this holds true for all of us. It’s all a matter of looking beyond the moment and seeing the greater picture of our life’s journey.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis