Occasionally, one meets someone like the enthusiastic and courageous Hensha Stone Gansbourg, whose inner spirit shines outwardly.
For more than 70 years, Hensha had an ongoing relationship with Israel from afar, until finally, two years ago, at the age of 87, she decided to fulfill a dream, and made aliyah.
“I am living in Jerusalem, and I feel like my neshama [soul] is on fire,” she says.
Exemplifying how hesed can be a natural quality
Hensha was born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a family whose humanitarianism and reverence for the Jewish people, for Torah education and scholarship, and for Israel have made the family name, Stone, an indelible legacy. Her father, the visionary and philanthropist Irving I. Stone, exemplified how hesed (loving kindness) can be a natural quality. And this, too, is Hensha.
She describes her father as a gentle giant. “He was a giant in what he did with his life, in everything he accomplished, but he was always quiet about it, down to earth. He helped so many people. But he never made a big deal of it.”
Hensha recalls that when a stranger once asked her father what he did, he said he still worked and wrote verses for a greeting card company, never revealing that he was head of American Greetings, the patron of The Stone Edition of Tanach, the founder of the Telz-Stone (Kiryat Ye’arim) Orthodox town located in the wider Jerusalem area, and more.
HER FIRST connection to Israel was as a child at Camp Galil in Pennsylvania in the 1940s, before the Jewish state was established. She later found out that at the time, weapons were being collected and hidden there, and then sent to Israel.
Hensha made a video of her first trip to Israel in 1952, the first of many, to record her experiences.
“After the Six Day War, I was euphoric. I felt a fervor. I had to visit. We arrived in July 1967. I remember ammunition lying everywhere as we rode into Jerusalem. Buildings were bombed-out shells. The graves on the Mount of Olives were desecrated. My strongest memory of that time is the Golan Heights. It blew my mind because I saw where the Arabs were shelling down for years on the kibbutzim.”
When they got to the top of the Golan Heights, they were thrilled to see the magnificent expanse of land.
On one trip, in 1983, she and her husband traveled to Hebron against government warnings, due to the stabbing of a young man. They walked to Beit Hadassah Hospital, reclaimed with the efforts of Sarah Nachshon. They met with Nachshon, who is known as the modern-day matriarch of Hebron. Afterward, heading uphill from Beit Hadassah to the cemetery, they were ambushed and threatened with stabbing. Nachshon stopped a van coming toward them and miraculously rescued them.
Always ready to explore, Hensha and her husband visited the Soviet Union in 1984 under the auspices of Lishkas Ezras Achim, a Lubavitch outreach organization that sent representatives to contact underground Jewish dissidents and bring them any supplies that were allowed into the country.
And there was their adventure near Haifa. On June 12, 1987, Yediot Aharonot published an article about two tourists who were lost hiking on the Little Switzerland Trail in Mount Carmel. They had been directed by their tour guide to just follow the steep, narrow path on their own and meet him at the end, on the other side.
They left in the afternoon, and by 6 p.m. realized they were in trouble. Freezing and terrified of possible wild animals, they sat on a rock and waited. A search squad found them at 2 a.m., and then they had to hike for two hours to reach the car.
LOOKING BACK over our lives, often trying to find meaning, memories appear like living threads that connect our past life with our present.
When I met Hensha, she began our conversation with the memory of the summer of 1968 when her cousin and her cousin’s daughter, sister, and nephew left for the airport en route to summer camp ahead of Hensha and her children. Following in her own car, Hensha witnessed the car and train collision. Everyone in her cousin’s car was killed.
“That was the turning point in my life,” she says. “I questioned their deaths. I was angry at God. I screamed, ‘Why did this happen? What is the purpose of life? What happens after we die?’ I had questions. I needed answers.”
After the terrifying car accident on the way to camp, Hensha began searching for answers. Powerful questions can reshape our lives. She turned to the spiritual, mystical philosophy and teachings of Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, and to the concept of gilgul neshamot (reincarnation), the return of the soul in another body and identity after death as a form of rebirth into this world.
“Even though I am greatly pained, I believe that God has a purpose and plan for us, and this makes it easier to accept unexplained loss and tragedy,” says Hensha.
“I may not understand the purpose and plan, but the soul is eternal and it has an opportunity to return and complete an unfulfilled mission.”
Hensha found solace in these concepts.
At the same time, her personal life was fragmenting. Married for 19 years, with five children, her marriage fell apart. Separated, feeling isolated, she changed directions. The Lubavitcher community became the focus of her life. “I had never really bent my will to the will of God. I decided to try to do that.”
In 1975, a year after her divorce, she agreed to an arranged courtship and married Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Gansbourg, a widower with five children and Chabad Hassid from Crown Heights in Brooklyn.
Living across the street from the Rebbe, Hensha immersed herself in the life of the community. Her husband, she says, was a devoted soldier to his Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Held in high esteem and with a beautiful singing voice, Gansbourg had the merit to lead the nigunim, the melodies, at the farbrengen, the Lubavitcher gatherings. After the Rebbe spoke, Gansbourg analyzed the Rebbe’s message, chose an appropriate tune, and initiated the singing.
Gansbourg was a printer, publisher, and co-owner of Empire Press. He encouraged Hensha to go back to school in the evenings. She attended the Parsons School of Design ,where she studied graphic design, and then The School of Visual Arts, where she focused on typography. She and Gansbourg often worked side by side, and he was, she says, proud of her eclectic portfolio.
When they were approached to be interviewed for a feature on Hassidism by Lis Harris, an American author, then a journalist with The New Yorker magazine, Hensha and her husband agreed. A three-part series was published in The New Yorker in September 1985 and later expanded into the book Holy Days, The World of a Hassidic Family (by Lis Harris, Summit Books, New York, 1985). For privacy, their names and some personal data were changed.
WHEN SHE realized the influence the book was having on others, Hensha accepted invitations to speak about her story in Holy Days. She was a popular speaker and spoke about her purpose. “To see the beauty and holiness in everyday things and to elevate ordinary life, the key is in the Torah.”
In fact, The New York Times published a number of reviews of Holy Days, expressing high praise. One review was written by journalist Ari Goldman (also a professor of journalism at Columbia University), who included the book in his curriculum and would invite Hensha and her husband to talk to his class and answer questions.
In 2000, Hensha and her husband moved to Boca Raton, Florida to more easily look after Gansbourg and manage his illness. He died in 2006. Hensha says that even in Israel, she continues to get comfort and strength to cope with challenges from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, of the Boca Raton Synagogue, who gives online classes on emunah.
“When it became harder for me to take care of my house by myself,” she says, “my daughters advised me to move into a senior residence. I did that, but after a year I knew it was time to contact Nefesh B’Nefesh and make arrangements for aliyah. I understood where I needed to be.”
Hensha chose to move right to the Beit Tovei Ha’ir retirement residence in Jerusalem – sight unseen – and is happy there. Friendships and activities keep her busy. To navigate the hilly Jerusalem streets, Hensha drives her new electric Afiscooter, made in Kibbutz Afikim.
“I can’t believe how the country has developed,” she says. “Look at what Israel has accomplished. If they didn’t have to fight, imagine how much more they could do.”
Next year, Hensha will celebrate her 90th birthday. Her wish is that her family in the United States all come to Jerusalem to be together. A family reunion. And they can be witness to what she is witness to.
“In the morning,” Hensha says, “when I go outside on my balcony, I cannot believe that I am living in this beautiful, holy city. It is a privilege for me. I have an amazing life, and we have an amazing God.”
HENSHA STONE GANSBOURG From Boca Raton to Jerusalem, 2021