Where do I begin? To the world, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was a powerhouse. The Jewish soul on fire. Triumphant survivor of Bergen Belsen. Founder of Hineni. Visionary who loved her people.
She packed Madison Square Garden and started a Jewish revolution. She stood bravely and spoke to the IDF about the love of Hashem, Eretz Yisrael, and the Torah. She addressed the American army, the Republican National Convention, presidents and prime ministers. Fearlessly, she traveled the globe igniting hearts and kindling the neshamos of thousands upon thousands.
But to me, the Rebbetzin was my dear “Ema,” to my children and grandchildren, their beloved “Bubba.”
Ema was always there for me. When I had the lead in my sleepaway camp production, the curtains opened and, guess who was sitting front row? When I brought my babies home from the hospital, it was straight to my parents’ home. When my little infant had bronchitis, it was Ema who tirelessly cradled her through the night and sang to her for hours. There was no one whose eyes lit up like Bubba’s for a grandchild’s first steps or a dvar Torah at the Shabbos table.
My Ema, the Rebbetzin, was a shooting star. Shimmers of her light remain. It is up to us to try to grasp the sparks so that her magic continues to guide, to lead, and to inspire.
People ask me now: What would your mother say about everything happening in the world? I know the first thing she would say is, “I must write an article for The Jewish Press.” How my mother loved to reach the audience of her column, “Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint.” How she would stay up till the crack of dawn so that her words came out just right.
There was never a topic she shied away from. My mother shared her sharp wisdom on world events as well as personal sorrows and joys. Wherever we would go, she would happily welcome her Jewish Press readers.
I cannot say I know exactly what my mother would say more substantially about current events. She had a chachmah that was unique. I dare not think I can speak for her. But I do know that growing up in my mother’s home, drinking in her words and sharing her thoughts, has given me a window into her soul. These are gifts my mother has given me so that I may share her legacy with you. Her fire remains burning.
After 9/11 many were frightened. What will be? I remember my mother calling upon her listeners to tap into our power of prayer. I remember the incredible sight of hundreds standing on line in New York City trying to get a seat to hear her words. To her hushed audience, she implored “Pray! Pray! Jewish people, pray!”
As I sit now with my book of Tehillim, my mother’s words echo loudly in my head. “Pray! Use your ko’ach tefilah and pray!”
Whenever I would see my mother with an extra moment, her tattered Tehillim would be open and her lips moving. When our children would go into labor, no matter the hour, the first call on the way to the hospital would be to Bubba. “We need you to daven, Bubba,” they would say.
I cry out the same words now. “We need you to daven, Ema. We need you to open up the gates of shamayim to our prayers. We are in such pain.”
When I was a little girl, I would watch my mother kindle her Shabbos lights. There was one licht that stood alone. It had no partner. My mother relayed to me that when she first came to this country after surviving Bergen Belsen and going through the D.P. camps in Switzerland, she had to begin life anew. She was just a little girl who had lost her childhood in the darkness of the Holocaust.
My grandparents tried to rebuild. It was not easy. They had lost over 85 rabbis, all family members with the name Jungreis. My great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – all brutally murdered al kiddush Hashem. How does one go on?
One night there was a knock at the door. My zaydie answered to find a fellow Jew standing there.
“Rabbi Jungreis?” he asked.
“Yes,” my zaydie responded.
The man was holding something in his hands.
“I am the last surviving Jew of Nadodvar, your parents’ city. I went back after the war to see if anyone from my family was left. There was no one. Not one survivor. I went back to the shul, to your parents’ courtyard. I know that your parents were last seen in Auschwitz holding a Sefer Torah and baby grandchild in their arms. Somehow this was left untouched in the ground. The only thing left, rebbe.”
The man held up the leichter of my great-grandmother, my zaydie’s mother, the Rebbetzin Slova Chana for whom I was named.
“I made a promise. I vowed that I would not sleep, I would not rest, until I reached you and gave you the leichter.” With that, the man handed the silver candlestick to my zaydie.
Zayda began to cry. He called together my grandmother, Mama, my two uncles, and my mother. “A message has come to us from the ashes, he said. “We cannot remain in choshech. It is time for us to light up the night, to kindle the flame and rebuild. Our zaydies and bubbies are with us. We must keep our emunah alive.”
Zayda and Mama rebuilt here in America, constructing a yeshiva and shul, brick by brick.
When I was born, Zayda gave the candlestick of the Bubba Slova Channa to my mother. And when my mother returned her soul to shamayim, the candlestick that was found beneath the earth became mine. Every Friday night, I take a moment before I kindle my Shabbos lights. I think about the miracle of Am Yisrael, rising from the ashes. I think about my bubbies and zaydies who made a path for me, who live on despite the flames of the gas chambers.
And I think about the gift my mother gave me. The mesorah of emunah, of faith that never dies despite it all.
Yes, we are going through challenges. Our enemies shout hateful slogans and want to throw us into the sea. Anti-Semitism, anti-Israel, and anti anything that is sacred has filled the world with despair. There is a pandemic that remains a mystery and has brought the world to its knees.
Remember my mother’s words. “Pray! Pray! Jewish people, pray!”
Let us dig deep into our hearts and use our tears to open up the gates of heaven. This is our greatest koach. And let us remember the candlestick brought out of the ashes, the Shabbos candlestick that bears witness to the triumph of Am Yisrael.
My beloved mother’s yahrzeit is Yud Tes Menachem Av. May imi, morasi – Rebbetzin Esther bas HaRav Avrohom HaLevi – stand up for her people in shamayim as she did here on earth. May we see the ge’ulah b’meheiarah.