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To the world she was a survivor and trailblazing visionary. To me and my siblings she was our mother who was always there for us.
The author with her mother.
These are most difficult words for me to write. Today I got up from sitting shiva for my beloved mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. For seven days I opened my mother’s front door, waiting for her beautiful smile to greet me. I walked into my mother’s kitchen where photos of all her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren plastered the walls. I looked for her but her chair was empty. The pain is raw. Where is my beautiful Ema?
To the world she was The Rebbetzin. The Jewish soul on fire. Powerhouse, visionary, survivor of Bergen-Belsen, founder of Hineni, charismatic speaker who packed Madison Square Garden, trailblazer in the world of outreach, and a woman who fearlessly traveled across the globe igniting the spark she believed lay dormant within every Jew.
The Rebbetzin at Madison Square Gardens
While sitting shiva we met people who came from far to share their stories of connection. Some spoke of her blessings that brought children and healing; others of her Torah teachings that helped bring peace to their divided families. Couples who met through her matchmaking shared pictures of sons and daughters who bring joy to our people. Men and women recounted incredible tales of being inspired to discover Judaism and leave assimilation behind.
My tears joined with those who came to offer consolation. They tried hard to express their words but many simply could not speak. The grief was overwhelming. Over and over, I heard, “We lost our Bubby.” “We lost our Torah Ema.”
A great light has been extinguished. Our world has dimmed.
To me and my siblings the Rebbetzin was our Ema. She was my mother who was always there for me, loved me, guided me and gave me life. After each baby I would return home where my mother rocked my newborns to sleep singing the Shema.
To our children and grandchildren, she was ‘Bubba’. How she adored us and made each child feel as if they were the favorite one.
Whenever we would visit, Bubba would insist on walking us to the door. We kissed Bubba and said goodbye. My mother placed her hands on our heads and gave us her blessing. She would always shed tears. Once outside she would call us back. “One more blessing,” she would say. “As long as I am alive, always come back for one more blessing.”
Down the driveway we would turn. Bubba was still standing there. Her lips were moving. She was whispering her blessings. She’d wave and we would wave back. A few more steps before her figure was just a dot. But we knew that she had not budged. She was still watching us, not letting us out of her sight. Constant prayer on her lips.
The Rebbetzin, 1973
When my mother was a small child, before deportations to the concentration camps had begun, young Hungarian Jewish men were drafted for slave labor. Szeged, my mother’s hometown, was their stopover. Zaydah, my grandfather, was the Rabbi of the city so my grandparents’ home became their refuge. Soon after, they were shipped away. These young men were forced to wear yellow armbands identifying them as hated Jews. But at my grandparents’ table they were transformed. They studied the holy books and were enveloped with love. Yellow badges of shame became badges of honor. When the hour would come for them to take leave, Zayda would place his hands on each young man’s head. He would cry and give his blessing. Then he would accompany them to the door and whisper blessings until they were out of sight.
Out of the ashes, my mother brought Zayda’s blessings home to us, the next generation.
My mother’s Book of Psalms is worn, the pages frayed, saturated with her tears. How many times we would call her with our burdens, asking my mother to shake the heavens above with her prayers. Each time a grandchild went into labor, it was Bubba whose number we dialed. “Ema, please daven,” we would ask, no matter the hour.
Who will pray for us now? Who will bless us? Who will see the hidden miracle that lies within each of us?
When my mother looked at you she saw beyond your body. She saw your soul, the ‘pintele Yid’. Though I was just a little girl I will forever remember sitting in Madison Square Garden with thousands of Jews from every walk of life. My mother passionately proclaimed “within every Jew there lies is a spark, a flicker of a light, a tiny flame. And if you wish it that tiny flame can become a great fire from which the words Hineni, here am I, my God, shall emerge. My children, shuvu banim, come home.”
My mother brought the Jewish nation home with her love and unwavering belief in God. The flames of the Holocaust that consumed our great grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and infant cousins only strengthened her conviction.
As our children grew, all the cousins would sleep over my parents' home for Shabbos. Friday night after the meal they would run down the stairs and quickly get into their pajamas. “Bubba tell us a story from when you were a little girl.” My mother would share how she had stood in the freezing cold of Bergen Belsen feeling frightened, eyes glued to the ground. She put her hand in her pocket and felt a crumpled piece of paper. Somehow her father had placed the words of the Shema in her pocket. “It was only a piece of paper but it told me that I was not alone, that my God lived. Slowly, I lifted my eyes.”
My mother connected us to our roots. She made us understand that if we don’t know where we’ve come from we cannot possibly know where we are going. She taught us how to live with hope. She created a legacy of emunah, pure faith. She embedded within me the understanding that no matter the darkness, we are a nation of miracles. God is watching over us. Never stop believing. Never be afraid. No matter how you have fallen there is no barrier between us and God.
Ema, my heart is full. I miss hearing your voice. Your seat at my Shabbos table is waiting for you. We ache for your blessings.
Thank you, Ema, for your footsteps. We will try to kindle your light and continue your mission.
And please, Ema, pray for us in the heavens above. Because we are all your children.