Photo Credit: Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Editor’s Note: Rebbetzin Jungreis, a”h, is no longer with us in a physical sense, but her message is eternal and The Jewish Press will continue to present the columns that for more than half a century have inspired countless readers around the world.

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From my earliest childhood I can recall standing next to my mother in the synagogue as the shofar was sounded. A feeling of awe and trepidation descended on the congregation as the call of the shofar reverberated throughout its walls. Time stood still – no one moved, and as young as I was, I was struck by the sanctity of it all and stood in rapt attention alongside the adults.

Then, overnight, our fate changed. Our synagogue became a wistful memory as the dismal, dense darkness of the Nazi concentration camp enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, when Rosh Hashanah neared we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were prepared to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled. Through heroic efforts and at great risk, we managed to obtain a shofar.

Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp, and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashanah came and we sounded the shofar, our brethren in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed wire fence separating us, so that they too might hear its piercing cry. The Nazis came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the truncheons fell on our heads we cried out, “Blessed Art Thou Lord Our G-d, Who has commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar.”

Many years later, I was lecturing in Israel in Neve Aliza, a village in Samaria. It was late summer, just before the High Holy Days, and I related the story of the shofar of Bergen Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience stood up.

“I know exactly what you are talking about because my father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. You may not know this, but the shofar was smuggled into our camp, and my father blew it there.”

I looked at her, dumbfounded. My eyes filled with tears. There were no words to express the awe that filled my heart.

“I have that shofar in my home,” she said, and with that she ran to her house and returned with it a few minutes later. We wept, we embraced, we reminisced – all while clutching the shofar in our hands.

The miracle of that shofar left us breathless. The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler’s “final solution” had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar triumphed over the flames. And, as if in vindication of that triumph, G-d granted me the privilege of rediscovering it in Eretz Yisrael, in the ancient hills of Samaria.

Who would ever have believed it – the shofar from Bergen Belsen in our Holy Land, held by two women who were young children in the camps and who, by every law of logic, should have perished in the gas chambers. After almost 2,000 years of wandering, oppression, torture, and Holocaust, we had returned to our land and the shofar accompanied us.

What is it about the shofar that makes it so special? Why is it incumbent upon every Jew to hear its call? What is the meaning behind those haunting sounds? What gives them the power to enter our innermost souls?

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, when all of us stand trial in front of G-d. The Books are opened. Our lives are examined – our every act, our every word, carefully scrutinized. Who shall live? Who shall die? Who shall be at ease? Who shall be tormented? Who shall be elevated? Who shall be demoted? Who would not tremble at such a time?

My husband, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, (also a survivor of the Holocaust) was a pioneering rabbi in a comfortable Long Island community. For most of the Jews there in those early years, prayer was a foreign concept and it was a struggle to get a daily minyan. But on Rosh Hashanah we had to open the movable walls leading to an adjacent hall to accommodate the overflow.

My husband put all his energy into those Rosh Hashanah services. He was determined to touch the hearts of even the most alienated congregants so that the Rosh Hashanah “visitors” might become full-time committed Jews. By the time he returned from the synagogue his shirt would be soaked with perspiration. He was totally exhausted. But instead of relaxing until the evening services, he visited, with shofar in hand, those congregants who were ill so that they too might hear the sacred sounds.

What impelled my husband to make that sacrifice – to ignore his fatigue and walk from house to house sounding the shofar? What is it about the shofar that makes it the symbol, the very essence, of Rosh Hashanah?

(To be continued)

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