Years ago, before smart phones, before social media, there were the early 1990s.
It was during this time in my life that I discovered Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. She was not only a beautiful lady on the outside, but she was an astoundingly beautiful speaker. The rebbetzin spoke like she cared about every single neshamah (soul) she was talking to. Because, to her, we were all beautiful souls, just trying to get a little closer to God (and some of us were trying to get married. Big singles scene at her center, Hineni).
I loved her. It was like a cult to me. I even shlepped Husband #1 to hear her, and that was when he was only Boy #68. (I dated a lot to find my Prince Charming #1.) The way she spoke about the Torah and her family — who she lost in the war, who survived the war —you left every class feeling just a little bit more proud of being Jewish, and your soul really did feel just a little more elevated. Her words were inspiring without being preachy. You just wanted to do everything she said.
I would go back to my friend’s apartment in the city and at Friday night dinner, I would give the rebbetzin’s words of Torah for the week. I did a really good impression, but that isn’t the point. She was just an amazing teacher and human.
A few weeks ago, I saw that her daughter, Slovie Jungreis-Wolff, was speaking in Englewood. And even though I am not a fan of being in social situations, I had to go hear her. The rebbetzin had passed away in 2016. I read her biography, and with everything going on in the world, I was hoping that her daughter inherited her gift of making everyone feel calm and hopeful. If she was anything like her mom, it would be like listening to words that made you feel like you had taken a Xanax first…all calming and relaxing. If you have ever taken a Xanax, you know what I am talking about.
Husband #1 could not believe that I wanted to go; he was very encouraging, as were my Oreos and their wives. “A shiur?” Mom’s going to a shiur?” Yes, mom is going to a shiur. Everyone just calm down. We are supposed to be doing things that are helping the war effort, and apparently going to a shiur is helpful. And there were to be refreshments. It’s a win/win.
Miss Slovie Jungreis-Wolff did not disappoint. She used her mother’s token phrase, “Yaakov, Yaakov, Hineni, I am here.” God is always here for you. God doesn’t want you to be afraid. “Do you think that after everything, Hashem doesn’t see? That he doesn’t love us? Of course he does.” She spoke about how, even after thousands of years, we are still doing the mitzvot of lighting Shabbos candles, performing brit milahs, and going to the mikvah. Thousands and thousands of years, and we are still doing these things. “You can never forget who you are and where you come from,” Slovie informed the crowd.
But her closing comments were what really got me. She asked, “How is the world a better place because you are here? Hashem gave each of us special gifts. How are we using them?” She said that every single one of us is capable of doing some sort of chesed, some sort of act that can help someone. “Scrolling on your phone is not helping anyone.”
Well, she is definitely right about that one. Scrolling is good for confirming that you need a really great therapist to help get your mind out of its constant bombardment of really scary things in this world.
But each of us is able to do something good. To volunteer, to not talk badly about someone, to make someone feel safe, less alone in their thoughts, less sad. I hugged a stranger the other day because we had been having a conversation about antisemitism and what it will mean for our children down the road, and she started crying, so I hugged her. Of course it turned out that she is a New York Times best-selling author of books about nutrition — and I clearly know nothing about nutrition — but I still performed a random act of kindness. That is a kind of exercise, right?
Slovie is not her mother. But she is blessed with a gift that allows her to speak quietly, yet you can hear her, and everything she says is worth listening to.
What did I learn? Just be nice to people, even if they don’t deserve it. We can only be responsible for ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, God will see all of the good that we are doing, and show us that He does love us and doesn’t forget about us…
If only it were so simple.
Banji Ganchrow of Teaneck just wanted to say that the people who initially sat down at her table, got up, and went to sit at a different table — she guesses they found out that she had cooties…. High school never ends!!!