A Tisha B'Av wake-up call from Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
Esther Jungreis was eight years old when, as an inmate of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, starved and humiliated, she would hear the daily shouts of the Nazi officers: "Line up, you Yudishe shwinehunt [pig-dogs]!"
And, as she obeyed their commands, little Esther would think: "I'm glad I'm a daughter of the people who stood at Sinai and sealed a covenant with God to be his eternal people and live by his Torah. I'm glad I'm not a daughter of this nation of brutes."
"The atmosphere in Europe today is just like it was in 1938. In every country I went to, Jews told me that they are afraid."
This summer, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, one of the most charismatic speakers in the Jewish world, did a speaking tour of Europe. "I'm sorry to tell you," she declared last week in a Jerusalem interview, "that the atmosphere in Europe today is just like it was in 1938. In every country I went to, Jews told me that they are afraid, that they are experiencing virulent anti-Semitism."
Her words are underscored by last week's judicial verdicts in France of the Muslim thugs who tortured Ilan Halimi to death because, in the words of the gang leader, "he was Jewish." Most of the co-defendants got off with such light sentences that France's Minister of Justice was embarrassed into calling a retrial. But perhaps even more ominous was the audacious statement of the French prosecutor, who accused the defendants of turning "normal anti-Semitism into hateful anti-Semitism." What, indeed, defines the line between "normal" (therefore ostensibly acceptable) anti-Semitism and the "hateful" variety? Had his Muslim attackers killed Ilan without torturing him for 24 days, would that have been acceptable in 21st century France?
"Europe is becoming Eurabia," Rebbetzin Jungreis avows. "The continent is being dominated by radical Muslims who are vehemently anti-Israel. And," she cautions, "anti-Israel means anti-Jewish. It's politically correct today to be anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, rather than anti-Semitic. But if anyone has any doubts about the intentions of radical Islamists, just remember Daniel Pearl. He was not a settler, nor an Israeli, nor even actively involved in Judaism. In fact, he was married to a non-Jew. What was his crime? What his murderers made him say before they decapitated him: ‘I am a Jew.'"
The word "afraid" cannot be applied to this petite powerhouse of a woman, who at age 73 can speak on four different continents in a week and whose teaching, writing, and counseling schedule, on less than three hours of sleep a night, would wear out a person half her age. Yet, as a Holocaust survivor, Rebbetzin Jungreis is clearly troubled by a sense of déjà-vu as she regards a world silent in the face of rising anti-Semitism.
"Before and during the Holocaust, there was not one nation who spoke up for us. And today there is not one nation speaking up for us. The whole world is negotiating with despicable dictators. The more vicious the Muslim nations become, the more olive branches are thrown at their feet, and the more pressure is placed upon Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. This pressure emanates not only from traditional anti-Semitic sources, but from our American government as well. The concessions that Washington demands of Israel are nothing short of suicidal. And yet, very few seem to care. Additionally, the administration has given the green light to Iran's nuclear power program, provided, of course, it is used only for peaceful purposes! If it weren't so tragic, it would be laughable. Don't they realize that we....nay, the entire world, heard Ahmadinejad openly proclaim his intention to wipe Israel off the map?"
The Iranian dictator's canards differed from Hitler's similar diatribes only by replacing the title "Juden" with "Zionists."
Rebbetzin Jungreis cites Ahmadinejad's September, 2008, speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he proclaimed: "The dignity, integrity and rights of the American and European people are being played with by a small but deceitful number of people called Zionists. Although they are a miniscule minority, they have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers as well as the political decision-making centers of some European countries and the US in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner... This means that the great people of America and various nations of Europe need to obey the demands and wishes of a small number of acquisitive and invasive people. These nations are spending their dignity and resources on the crimes and occupations and the threats of the Zionist network against their will."
Although the Iranian dictator's canards differed from Hitler's similar diatribes only by replacing the title "Juden" with "Zionists," not one member nation of the United Nations (except Israel) walked out of Ahmadinejad's speech. In fact, points out Rebbetzin Jungreis, Columbia University invited Ahmadinejad to speak. "Can you imagine inviting Hitler to speak at Columbia University?" she asks ruefully.
The very night following his U.N. invective, Ahmadinejad appeared on Larry King Live. Rather than challenging Ahmadinejad's accusations, Larry King (himself a Jew) amiably asked his guest, "How old are you? You look so young, but you already have married children." Rebbetzin Jungreis, her voice soft but her eyes flashing fire, declares: "I would have asked him some very different questions."
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you were a Jew in Europe in March, 1939, and somehow, magically, you knew all the horrors that were about to be perpetrated against Europe's Jews—the ghettoes, the starvation, the cattle cars, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the death marches--, what would you do to stop it?
This was the question I recently asked a group of American college students being primed for leadership in the Jewish community. One woman raised her hand and answered, "I would alert world leaders."
I replied: "The world leader who was most sympathetic to the Jews was FDR, but as late as 1944, when he knew the worst, even FDR, as we now know, refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, an act that would have saved hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews." I turned to the group and asked: "How many of you think that the Jews could have been saved by alerting world leaders?" Not a single hand went up.
I invited other suggestions, and a young man offered: "There were mercenary armies in those days. I would have used Jewish money to hire a mercenary army to defend us."
"A mercenary army? Not a single standing army in Europe could defeat Hitler's juggernaut. How many of you think that the Jews could have been saved by a mercenary army?" Not a single hand went up.
"I would have warned the Jews of Europe to flee," a young woman suggested.
"To where?" I asked. "We all know that not a single country in the world, including the United States, was willing to take Jews who could still get out of Germany in 1938. Besides, numerous accounts attest that the Jews who were warned by those who escaped from cattle cars and death camps simply refused to believe that it was possible, in the 20th century, in enlightened Europe, for Jewish men, women, and children to be murdered in factories of death. As we continue to see today, the Jewish capacity for self-deception as to the intentions of our enemies is limitless."
The college students sat there silently, looking grim.
We had just viewed a clip from "The Third Jihad," a documentary about the dangers of militant Islam. "I wasn't really asking you how you could have prevented the Holocaust," I explained. "Really, I was asking you how you'll prevent the next holocaust. Is there anyone here who thinks that diplomatic or military solutions can save the six million Jews of Israel who will imminently face an Iranian nuclear bomb?"
The group was silent.
REBBETZIN JUNGREIS'S SOLUTION
The approaching fast day of Tisha B'Av commemorates the core tragedy of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Not only was Tisha B'Av a spiritual tragedy, for the Divine Presence retreated into the inaccessibility we all experience, but also all of the physical tragedies of the 2,000-year exile, all of the Inquisitions, Crusades, pogroms, and holocausts issue from the calamity of Tisha B'Av.
The sages of the Talmud posed a curious question: What caused the Temple's destruction? These sages were chronologically as close to the destruction of the Temple as we are to the Holocaust -- a single generation. They all knew that the Romans had set fire to the Temple. Yet, they understood that whatever befalls the Jewish People is determined by God in response to our own actions. Thus the sages famously concluded that the Temple was destroyed because of our spiritual failure, because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews.
A loving father will discipline his child when he has to -- not out of anger, but out of genuine care for what's best for the child."
Likewise, Rebbetzin Jungreis points to a spiritual solution for our dire predicament. When asked how Jews today can use the rising anti-Semitism to embrace their Judaism instead of running away from it, Rebbetzin Jungreis replies: "If a Jew tries to escape his covenant with God, then God takes out wanted ads in all the newspapers: ‘WANTED: ANTI-SEMITES TO REMIND MY PEOPLE WHO THEY ARE.' And unfortunately there are always millions of volunteers. In every country, wherever you go, you will find anti-Semitism. No matter what a Jew does, his obligation to the Covenant will pursue him. Many Jews in Hungary before World War II had converted to Christianity. When we were being shoved in the cattle cars a woman was screaming to the Nazi guard, 'I'm not a Jew!' He just pushed her with his rifle butt into the cattle car."
"God is not punitive; He's corrective," Rebbetzin Jungreis explains. "A loving father will discipline his child when he has to -- not out of anger, but out of genuine care for what's best for the child. God is our loving Father. We are experiencing the tragedy of a nation that has forgotten who they are, so God uses anti-Semitism to remind us."
She illustrates with a searing example: According to the Talmud, one of the reasons God saved us from bondage in ancient Egypt was that we didn't change our Hebrew names. "Fast forward," Rebbetzin Jungreis declares, pointing out that in Germany before the War assimilation and intermarriage were rampant. Most Jews forgot about Hebrew names. They became Otto and Eva. Then, in 1938, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws. One of those laws demanded that all Jews must assume a Jewish name, that every Jewish man must add the name "Israel" and every Jewish woman must add the name "Sarah." Thus, if a Jew's name was Otto Schwartzbaum, he had to become Otto Israel Schwartzbaum. Jews had forgotten who they were, but Hitler reminded them.
"Jews had forgotten who they were, but Hitler reminded them."
"Fast forward to 2009," Rebbetzin Jungreis says. "When I speak on college campuses, I give out my books gratis, and I inscribe each book to the recipient. I ask each student, ‘What is your Jewish name?' Most of them reply, "I don't know.' I tell them, ‘You have to find out your Jewish name.' If they don't have a Jewish name, I tell them to go to their rabbi and ask for a Jewish name, or I give them a Jewish name. Because your Jewish name is not simply a name. Your Jewish name is your roots, your heritage, your identity. Through your Jewish name you are linked to your life's mission."
A few years ago, she was invited to meet with ministers of the Hungarian parliament. One of the ministers asked her: "Are you angry?"
Rebbetzin Jungreis inquired, "What do you mean?"
The minister explained: "During the Holocaust, this same Hungarian parliament passed all those anti-Semitic laws."
The Rebbetzin replied: "We are not a nation that indulges in anger. But let me tell you a story. My ancestors in ancient Egypt suffered slavery and degradation. If you had asked who has the greater chance of surviving the millennia, the Israelite slaves or the Egyptian empire, everyone would have laughed at you. But all that is left of the Egyptian empire is relics in the British Museum, and we, the Jewish People, are still here. And this holds true for all the mighty empires of the world, from the Babylonians to the Romans. The great Roman Empire killed hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Emperor Titus built a victory arch in Rome to commemorate the conquest of the Jews. I moved through the Arch of Titus going from Hitler's concentration camps on our way to freedom. Hitler claimed to give the world ‘the final solution.' He even built a museum in Prague to exhibit the artifacts of the extinct Jewish people. But his ‘thousand-year Reich' survived 12 years, and we Jews are still here."
Jewish survival, explains Rebbetzin Jungreis, is God's part of the Covenant. Our part is to keep the Torah's commandments.
"If we would only allow a moment of truth to illuminate our hearts," grieves Rebbetzin Jungreis, "we would readily concede our pitiful state. Just consider that we, the nation that taught a pagan world about God, we, the nation that introduced the language of prayer to humanity, we, the nation that has lent meaning to the concept of faith and trust, has forgotten how to turn to God, how to trust Him, how to have faith in Him."
With obvious pain, she quotes a recent article in the New York Times. The article maintained that in these depressed economic times people cannot afford to go to psychotherapists, so instead they go to their religious counselors. A Muslim businesswoman interviewed by the journalist complained that it's difficult to find a good place to pray five times a day when she's in the business world. A Catholic woman complained that the sexual mores of the Church are very restrictive. What was the complaint of the Jewish woman? She finds it very stressful to have a Jewish last name and to be identified with Israel. So she assures her date that she eats pork and that Israel has nothing to do with her. "What has become of us?" laments Rebbetzin Jungreis. "God looks upon His children and weeps."
Rebbetzin Jungreis ends on a powerful note:
"Hitler needed ghettos. I know. I was in one.
"Hitler needed cattle cars. I know. I was in one.
"Hitler needed concentration camps. I know. I was in one.
"Hitler needed gas chambers. I know. I was in one, although that time it sprayed water instead of gas.
"Ahmadinejad doesn't need ghettos, nor cattle cars, nor concentration camps, nor gas chambers. He can accomplish the same thing just by pressing a button. Heaven forbid!"
What will you do to stop him?
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis is the founder and president of Hineni, and author of four best-selling books: Jewish Soul on Fire, The Committed Life, The Committed Marriage, and Life Is A Test. For Rebbetzin Jungreis's schedule of appearances,click here.