Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis is well under 5 feet tall and probably weighs close to 75 pounds. Yet she towers over all of us. She’s close to 80 years old, and she tells us in jest about the multiple bones in her body she has recently broken as she miraculously walks up to the podium to speak. She is given everyone’s full attention as if she is the matriarch of our people. And as a survivor with a heart full of golden love for all the Jewish people, her children, she is our nation’s Bubbe, our matriarch.
After the tragedies of the massacre in Israel, she consoled our hearts with her insights and affection. She warmed our conscience with the knowledge that we as Jews know from our past that the darkness hits hard, but the light will follow. Just as we cry mazel tov at a wedding after the glass is broken, so shall we eventually cry tears of joy after this shattering experience. And only a woman of her strength, spirit, and legacy can share such truth with us.
She spoke of the secrets of becoming, “The Person You’d Like to Be.” She asked if we know who we want to be. At that moment, everyone in the room knew exactly who we’d like to be. She was standing there on the podium speaking to us. A Jewish soul so filled with love and warmth exuding from everywhere in her delicate body, she stood with the poise that would put the Queen of England to shame and a presence that had everyone yearning to hear her every word as it nourished our spirits. She told us that every one of us is holy and sacred, a piece of the Divine is carried within us, as prescribed in the Scriptures that God blew His breath into man. For some of us, we just knew we were holy because our wise elderly Bubbe told us we were that night. She told us of how President Bush would bow to her every time they met because she would not shake his hand as an Orthodox woman. We would all loyally bow to her as well, for we were in the presence of royalty.
She told us that we are Jews, and we must know what that means. She told us we are leaves attached to one large tree, our Heritage. If we let go during the storms, we are lost from our life source. The word “Jew” comes from the Hebrew word Yehuda which means to give thanks. Our lives are meant to be full of gratitude. Every moment is a precious gift, a time to connect and share with those around us. She taught this to us by example. She exuded gratitude to every person for being there and for the opportunity to share her wisdom and our Heritage with us.
Rebbetzin Jungreis learned many of her secrets of life from the great wisdom of her father, some of which she shared with us that evening. She told us of how he taught them to care in the midst of the horrific atrocities around them in Bergen-Belsen. He told her of the importance of smiling to others, as it will warm their hearts. And how they will smile back, which will warm your heart back.
Despite only getting one slice of bread for a day’s rations, he would save a little bit of his slice every day. They would count the days together until Shabbat, when he would gather his children around him and share the stale pieces with them. They would celebrate Shabbat together in their mind’s eye, remembering the warmth of their home, the fresh challahs being baked, the candles being lit, and singing Shalom Aleichem, welcoming the Shabbat angels. When they asked her father where are the angels now, he told them, “Precious children, you are the Shabbos angels.” And when the Nazis screamed, “Dirty Jewish Pig!” at them, she knew, it’s not true. She is a Shabbos angel.
She represents our nation’s passions and love for our people, our faith, and our Torah. We must take her teachings to heart and treat ourselves and others as angelic royalty. We must recognize the most precious gift of what we have received, our existence and heritage. And we must share the love and the light of being Jews. As Rebbetzin Jungreis said, “Don’t light the Shabbos candles with just the matches. Light them with your heart.” We too can light up the world with our hearts.
(This blog is based on the lecture the Rebbetzin gave at the Lois & Wilfred Lefkovich Chicago Torah Network annual Evening of Inspiration with Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, November 2014)
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