One on One: Choosing life

Hineni founder and author Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis says that Torah values are behind Jewish resilience

jungreis 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy/Hineni)
jungreis 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy/Hineni)
'I have always felt that the history of the Holocaust has not been represented properly," says Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, when asked what compelled her now, of all times, to make a documentary film about her experiences as a young Hungarian girl at Bergen-Belsen. "There is so much atrocity, brutality and evil depicted from that period," she explains. "And, of course, it was all that. But something is missing, and that is the distinction between the response of the Jews to such horrors and that of other peoples, such as in Darfur or Bosnia." What has not been sufficiently communicated, she asserts, is "the sanctity of the Jewish people - our ability to rise above savagery and retain our souls, values and priorities, and to maintain the spirit of God in death camps." Doing something to convey this resilience "has always been my dream," says the New York-based, world-renowned motivational speaker, columnist for The Jewish Press and author of four best-selling books - The Jewish Soul on Fire, The Committed Life, The Committed Marriage, and Life Is a Test - who uses the Torah as a kind of guidebook for everyday living. "But then one day, my granddaughter called me up and suggested that I make a film about all the stories I had always told the family about my past. At that moment, I knew the time had come. And that's how Triumph of the Spirit was born." Jungreis, whose late father and husband were both esteemed rabbis, is the founder of Hineni, an organization devoted to encouraging Jews to become closer to their heritage, roots and, of course, the Torah. And she is not afraid to admit that a key purpose in her life, and behind her foundation, is to combat what she has been criticized for calling the "spiritual holocaust" of the Diaspora: intermarriage, the destroyer of Jewish continuity. In Jerusalem earlier this month for a screening of the 20-minute film she describes as "energizing," Jungreis reveals the secret of her success. "I speak from my heart - never from a text," she claims. "And I always substantiate everything I say with a passage from the Torah." With all the Holocaust memorials and museums all over the world today, how is it possible that there is what you call a vacuum? I have not only visited all those museums, but I am on the board of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. And, while they have done a magnificent job of preserving the memories, nevertheless the vacuum is still there. The story of the sanctity of our people on a personal level - of what our daily lives were like, and how we managed to maintain ourselves - hasn't been properly conveyed. Please don't misunderstand me. Holocaust museums all over the world have made an awesome contribution to preserving the memory of the six million. But I was seeking an additional dimension. You see, Holocaust museums usually leave you very depressed. But after you watch my film, you say to yourself, "I have a heritage, a legacy, to carry on. I have a mission, a purpose. I have to live for my people." That was the reaction we received from the 1,000 people who came to watch the film in Jerusalem earlier this month. Young and old. Religious and secular. Left and Right. Men, women, children from every walk of life. No one left without crying. But it was not a cry of desperation; it was, rather, one of inspiration. How do you explain, then, the phenomenon of survivors who emerged from the Holocaust saying that they no longer believed in God, because either He doesn't exist or He could not be worthy of worship when He allowed such atrocities to be committed against innocent people? Indeed, from the gehenom [hell], many emerged bitter and angry. I would never judge them for that. But those who emerged bitter and angry were mostly those who did not have Torah roots. And by this I don't mean that they didn't keep kosher or observe Shabbat. I mean that they weren't really nurtured in Torah values, or in knowing what Torah is. After all, many people may observe some of the mitzvot by rote, without understanding the spirit behind doing so. My own father and mother were spiritual giants, so I was blessed with having that kind of teaching at my side. I therefore always understood that I had stood at Mount Sinai, and that we Jews marched to the tune of a different drummer - that even when the whole world goes mad, we have to live by the rules that God gave us. I also have always understood that it's not God, but man, who is evil. God is not a puppeteer, and we are not puppets. It is hypocritical to ask, "Where is God?" when things go badly, while at the same time not acknowledging Him when things go well. Notice that people don't ask where God is when they make a lot of money or are healthy. So, at Bergen-Belsen, I never asked, "Where is God?" But I did ask, "Where is man?" In this entire world, there wasn't one nation that spoke up on our behalf. The whole world knew what was happening. Jews and others escaped and told about it, and there were detailed maps of Auschwitz. I come from Hungary; we were the last to be deported. We knew everything! But we had no place to go; we had no recourse. I should ask, "Where was God?" Chutzpah! I should ask, "Where was man? Where was education? Where was enlightenment? Where was Western culture?" Let me tell you, it wasn't just six million who were killed in those camps; it was Western civilization that died as well. It proved to be completely bankrupt. Speaking of bankruptcy, why do you think much of the West today expresses moral outrage at Israel for its treatment of Palestinians? The sad truth is that "Esav soneh et Ya'acov" - Esau hates Jacob. This will never change. Whether we like it or not, we are a nation that stands alone. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself. We only have one friend: ribono shel olam [God], and that's the one friend we forget to turn to. In the US, no one has difficulty saying, "God bless America." We sing it in the anthem. But in "Hatikva," they forgot to include His name! How did we do that? Which reminds me of a story. On Rosh Hashana in Bergen-Belsen, through great sacrifice, we in the Hungarian compound obtained a shofar. Adjacent to us was the Polish compound. When they heard about this, they came to the barbed-wire fence that separated us to make the blessing while we blew the shofar, and the Germans came to beat them. Many years ago, I spoke at Neveh Aliza in Samaria. It was right before Rosh Hashana, so I told this story. Suddenly, a woman got up and started to cry. She said, "Rebbetzin, I was in the Polish compound that day. I was a little girl and my father was the rabbi there, and your shofar was smuggled into our camp, and I have that shofar!" Immediately, she ran home and came back with the shofar, and we stood there crying like babies holding it. And, weeping, I said, "How could this happen if not for God? That two little girls survived and are holding that shofar in the Land of Israel!" It has to give you goose bumps! It has to make you see there's God in the world. How could we be so blind? Am Yisrael has to wake up. It's not a question of being religious or secular. It is a question of understanding that we are a nation who stood at Mount Sinai, and that there is a God and that He is our friend. Many Jews translate what you are saying about the Holocaust, about being a nation and about their mission into political liberalism... It is no coincidence that Jews have always been at the forefront of every liberal movement. If a Jew doesn't have Torah, there's a vacuum in his heart. But he's left with this desire to do something for the world, because at Mount Sinai, God engraved upon our souls a desire for tikkun olam [making the world a better place]. So, if we do not know our Torah, we will gravitate anywhere else. This is why it's also no coincidence that there are so many Jews going to ashrams in India, and other such things. I mean, what is Bernie Goldberg doing at an ashram? Bernie, what are you doing there? [she laughs] It's because Bernie doesn't know his name is Baruch! Interestingly, President Obama asked Rick Warren, one of the most popular Christian ministers in the US, to give the benediction at his inauguration. And when Warren began the benediction, I couldn't believe my ears. He said: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!" This is the Shema, a strictly Jewish prayer. So sometimes Hashem sends us messages through non-Jewish sources, because we don't listen to our Jewish ones. He sends us wake-up calls. But we continue to sleep. And you know, when a person sleeps, he resents being woken up. He says, "Leave me alone. I need five more minutes." And five more minutes becomes a lifetime. Look, I travel on all continents, and I see a rise in anti-Semitism resembling, God forbid, pre-Holocaust Europe. There's one big difference between then and now, however. In pre-Holocaust Europe, Hitler had to engage cattle cars, create slave-labor camps and build concentration camps with gas chambers to wipe us out. Today, God forbid, all the likes of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad have to do is push a button. Many Israelis would scoff at your talk of Torah values, pointing to the Orthodox establishment here, and at members of the haredi community who get violent over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat. Apparently, studying Torah and other Jewish sources doesn't guarantee goodness. If the Torah community were what it should be, we wouldn't have a problem. Am Yisrael is a beautiful nation, but we're always fighting, and that's a terrible thing. The problem is that we do not keep up with Hashem's goals. Come on now, is what you're saying about the Jews anything new? Haven't Jews been this way since the days of Mount Sinai? No question. But every trait one has can be either an asset or a liability. God says that the yetzer hara [bad impulses] is a very good thing if channeled properly. Take jealousy, for example. It's a wonderful thing, if you know how to use it. Be jealous of someone's goodness, for example, so you can learn to be good. You might ask, why be jealous? Why can't I just respect the goodness of others? Because if you respect it, you're going to stay very comfortable where you are. You're going to say, "That's nice, so-and-so is a good person who gives to charity." But if you're jealous, you're going to want to give, too. This is why we have had to be a spiteful nation - am k'sheh oref - because if we hadn't been one, we would have given up the Torah, and on being Jewish, long ago. But there is a resilience in us - a stubbornness. Even assimilated Jews say they're Jews. So, you see, Hashem gave us these negative traits so that we would turn them into positive ones. That's the true tikkun olam - not working on others, but on ourselves - harnessing the bad impulses for good. If you can do that, you can change the world, because once you are changed, the world around you changes. Now, the destruction of the First Temple occurred because of three cardinal sins - murder, idol worship and immorality. Hashem forgave us in 70 years, and we were back in Eretz Yisrael rebuilding the Temple. This exile that we are in today, has occurred because of sinat hinam [baseless hatred]. And it will be resolved when we have ahavat hinam [baseless love]. My father would always say, "You have to kiss every Jew who survives." How can you have anything negative to say to a Jew after such tragedies? Every Jew is precious. And what do we do? We fight, we fight. That fighting comes from a stubbornness. And that stubbornness should be harnessed for good. How can it be harnessed in such a volatile country with such complex politics and people who are so passionate about their opposing views? Let me answer that with a story. After the Yom Kippur War, I wanted to do something for all the many wounded soldiers. My husband, z"l, in addition to being the most spiritual rabbi one could ever meet, was also an artist; that was one of his hobbies. So I asked him to design a medallion I could give to the soldiers to express how much we appreciate everything they did, that their sacrifice was not in vain - that there's a Jewish nation all over the world who honors and loves them. So he designed this Hineni medallion [here she points to a pin on her lapel - the same design, but with diamond chips]. And I found a Yemenite Jew named Sharabi, who made me 1,000 silver pins. My first stop was Tel Hashomer hospital. We had a big program there, where I spoke to the soldiers - many of whom were in wheelchairs - and then gave out the pins. Seeing the amazing reaction on the part of the soldiers, a nurse came up to me and asked me if I would mind going to the hospital bed of one soldier who had been so badly burned in a tank in the Golan Heights that he was unable to attend the program. I said, "It would be my honor." So, I went into his room and bent over his bed, telling him quietly who I was and that I had come from America to honor him in the name of Am Yisrael. When I put the pin on his bedside table, he mumbled something I didn't understand. So I asked the nurse what he had said. She told me I'd rather not know - since, apparently, he had said something rude along the lines of where I could stick that pin. So, I said to him: "I'm going to leave this pin here, because one day you'll want it - to give as an engagement gift to your fiancee." At this, he started to cry. "Nobody's going to want to marry me," he said. "I'm not a man like this." I said, "You're right. You're not a man. You're an angel from God. It's in the Torah. When God gives Abraham the promise that the Land of Israel will be ours, Abraham asks, 'How do I know?' And we ask how it is that he has the chutzpah to question God. But no, he asks this not for himself, but for future generations. He means, 'What if my children forget the Torah? What they depart from the right way? How do I know the land will still be theirs?' So God answers: 'Casualties.' You are the angel who suffered these casualties so that we should have our Israel. And when you meet your girl, you tell her that, and give her this gift." And I left. A year later, I was back is Israel giving a talk at a rehabilitation center. When I finished, a soldier in a wheelchair presented me with flowers. "Rabbanit," he said, "You don't recognize me, do you?... I'd like you to meet my bride." And she was wearing the pin! The point is that we have such an awesome gift, but we're so busy with our petty fights and stupidities that we don't see the trees in the beautiful forest. I always cry and ask for God's forgiveness. I say, "You cast us into this crazy exile for almost 2,000 years, but we are still Jews. We didn't give up, in spite of our tragedies and the Holocaust. Any other nation would have said bye-bye. But what did we do after liberation from the concentration camps? As hurt as we were, we got married and brought children into the world, and named them after parents, grandparents and siblings who perished." That is who we are. And that is what I wanted to convey through my film.