In the early 1960s Esther Jungreis was a young rebbetzin living in the Five Towns area of Long Island. Talking with her one day at the old Pioneer Country Club Hotel in the Catskills, the late founding publisher of The Jewish Press, Rabbi Sholom Klass, immediately sensed something special about my mother. He offered her a weekly column in the paper – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The column, which has never stopped running in The Jewish Press, became a powerful platform for my mother, who went on to win widespread recognition as a popular speaker and author and as the founder, in 1973, of Hineni, the internationally known outreach and educational organization.
Many people grew up reading my mother’s columns in The Jewish Press and her insights would serve as the d’var Torah at their Shabbos tables. My mother thus became a welcome and familiar Shabbos guest in Jewish homes through her weekly words of wisdom, compassion, and love.
Two weeks before my mother passed away last August, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost his mother. The house was filled to capacity with those who came to comfort the mourners. My friend motioned to me to come forward. In a quiet voice, he told me that one of his mother’s last wishes was that he contact Rebbetzin Jungreis because a family she knew was struggling with a very difficult problem.
The next day I went to my mother’s bedside and told her of this woman’s last wish. Her response still haunts me to this day. Without giving it a second thought my mother said, “As soon as I get better, I will meet with them.” A few weeks later as I was sitting shiva for my mother, my friend came to comfort me. I told him I had come to give him chizuk when he was sitting shiva but it was he who gave me (and my mother) chizuk.
“As soon as I get better, I will meet with them” are words I shall never forget.
Hashem had different plans but I know my mother is beseeching Hashem for all those in this world who are grappling with a multitude of difficulties.
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My mother used the wide variety of gifts Hashem bestowed upon her to the optimal level. She never wasted a moment, understanding the precious nature of time and how quickly it eludes us. A close friend once asked her, “How do you function with such little sleep?” My mother’s response: “I sleep fast.”
Wherever she traveled, she always carried her trusted weapon, her sefer Tehillim (book of Psalms) and never wasted a minute. Wherever she was – from sitting in a plane on the runway to waiting in a doctor’s office – that book of Psalms could be found in her hands.
My mother was renowned not only for her pioneering work in kiruv, or for the thousands of shidduchim she made, or for her riveting Torah classes, but as those who have read her Jewish Press columns or her books can attest, she was the ultimate storyteller.
Of the hundreds of stories she related over the decades, a great number have penetrated our hearts for the incredible lessons they impart. The following was one of her favorites:
Many years ago, my mother and her assistant, Barbara Janov, were heading back to New York from Portland, Oregon. They had booked a red-eye flight that would have them back in New York at 5:30 a.m. After boarding the plane, my mother found her seat and immediately took out her Tehillim.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a gentleman in a nearby seat looking at her and Barbara, and within moments he came over and started making small talk. After a few minutes my mother asked the man, “Are you Jewish?”
Suddenly defensive, the man replied with more than a tinge of anger in his voice, “Yeah, so what if I am?”
My mother told him she was just curious and it was not meant as an offensive remark. The man went back to his seat.
Soon the stewardess began to call out the names of passengers who had ordered kosher meals. My mother heard the man she’d spoken with tell the stewardess, “I’ll have the ham and cheese sandwich.”
My mother promptly informed the stewardess that the man could not have a ham and cheese sandwich. Turning red, the man shouted, “Why not? Why can’t I have that sandwich?” My mother patiently told him he could not have the sandwich because he had signed a contract thousands of years ago at Mount Sinai, when he and all other Jewish souls declared the Oneness of Hashem’s name and their willingness to obey His commandments for all eternity.
The man was aghast. He insisted that the stewardess “keep this woman away from me.” My mother told him that if he did not believe her, he should check out the contract he signed by learning Torah. The man just quietly muttered under his breath for the remainder of the flight.
When the plane landed, my mother and the other passengers went to retrieve their baggage. As it happened, it was that man’s mazel that he met the Rebbetzin again. My mother reached into her pocketbook and gave the man her card.
“If you want to check out the contract you signed, if you want to learn about your heritage, the commandments you accepted so long ago, then contact me,” she said. “My name is Esther Jungreis and I teach Torah in New York. I am sure we will see each other again.”
Shaking his head, the man stormed off.
Several years later, my mother was teaching her regular Tuesday evening Torah class in my grandfather’s synagogue. As was always the case, people would line up afterward to talk with her. At the end of the line stood a man with a black hat and a beard – someone who very obviously was an Orthodox Jew.
As the man approached my mother he asked, “Rebbetzin Jungreis, do you remember me?”
When my mother did not remember someone she invariably would say, in order not to hurt the person’s feelings, “Well, you look familiar.”
“Rebbetzin,” the man persisted, “you mean you don’t remember me? Do you remember the red-eye flight from Portland to New York many years ago? Do you remember telling me that I’d signed a contract at Mount Sinai?”
Suddenly the memories came rushing back.
Astonished, my mother asked, “Is it really you? What happened to you? Of course I remember you.”
The man went on to tell my mother that soon after their chance meeting he had given a great deal of thought to what she’d said.
“I listened to what you told me, Rebbetzin, and I made it my business to learn more about that contract I signed and today I live a Torah-observant life. I came here today to thank you for telling me about the contract and my obligations as a Jew.”
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A very close friend sent me the following saying: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away.” She commented, “Yisroel, every time your mother spoke, she did that for people.”