I used to think ballerinas and Superman were the golden provinces of childhood, reminiscent of bright little curls, pink tutus and slippers; red capes and fierce little fists and faces. A very wise woman, who is certainly not a child, has taught me the truth.
I was privileged to spend the last two weeks organizing a visit to Israel for the world renowned lecturer and noted author, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. Rebbetzin Jungreis, a Holocaust survivor, has devoted her life to reigniting the flame of Judaism in hearts across the globe. She has spoken at important landmarks and institutions around the world, including Madison Square Garden, the White House, and to American and Israeli army units.
The Rebbetzin is also my grandmother, a grandmother that I have been sharing with Jews everywhere throughout my life. I, along with thousands of other “grandchildren,” are well-loved and always uplifted by this remarkable woman, known to all — even former U.S. President, George W. Bush — as “The Rebbetzin.” When she visits I make the arrangements to connect her with as many “grandchildren” as possible, at a pace most of us would find daunting, as well as exhausting. This trip, like most others, included lectures in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, meetings and interviews, a tour of holy places and important sites with close friends from New York, and a wedding.
The first Wednesday evening, Rebbetzin Jungreis was to speak for White City Shabbat, partnered with Hineni, at the Goren shul in Tel Aviv. Over 100 young Tel Aviv olim came out at 8:00 that night, looking forward to a beautiful evening of inspiration. But at 9:00, the Rebbetzin still had not arrived. Disappointed, people started to leave. I quickly took the microphone, and told the audience something that made even the most impatient of them willing to stay all night: This was the Rebbetzin’s first trip to Israel since full hip replacement surgery a year and half ago. She had arrived just a day ago, and the journey, coupled with her intense schedule, was proving quite difficult; things were just moving slower.
But . . .
But she would be there. The Rebbetzin would not let her situation stop her, nor let it get her down. And even if she would be delayed, she would come, she would speak, and she would inspire.
When Rebbetzin Jungreis arrived — to a still packed audience, she blew them away as she described her experiences as a Holocaust survivor and her challenges later on in life, including the hip fracture and rehabilitation. “I, a great-grandmother many times over, had to learn how to walk again. And there I was, taking my first steps, being cheered on by family and the hospital staff. Then, one of the nurses shouted out, ‘There goes the Rebbetzin, a ballerina!’ And that’s what I am; that’s what we all are. We are ballerinas that waltz and dance through obstacles and hardships — and we don’t give up.”
A riveted audience got the message. The next day, scrolling through my Facebook updates, I saw many from the audience quoting the speech and talking about how inspired they were. “I am a ballerina!” posted a high-tech, 32 year-old woman from Tel Aviv.
I thought the Rebbetzin would want to rest the next day. But I had mentioned to her that, a few months ago, I sent a family we both knew to visit the Zion orphanage in Jerusalem. The director had asked me then to please ask my grandmother to make a stop at the orphanage and encourage the boys next time she was in Jerusalem. “We’re going!” the Rebbetzin said.
Zion orphanage is the world’s oldest home for orphaned and homeless Jewish youth. Today, there are 120 children there, aged 7-18, from throughout the country. The orphanage provides them with the care and education needed to develop into responsible adults and productive members of society.
The Rebbetzin sent some close friends, who were traveling with her, to pick up candy bags for the children. At 5:00, she and her entourage arrived at the orphanage. A few boys were milling about in the courtyard. The Rebbetzin was supposed to deliver her message in the synagogue, but she started chatting to those boys. Slowly, a crowd gathered — so the Rebbetzin spoke, standing right there in the open, with the boys grouped around her.
She spoke to them, these children who had struggled through dysfunctional or tragic events in their young lives, about her own very difficult childhood during the Holocaust. She told them how it was a springboard for becoming the person she is today, and that they can rise above the circumstances from which they came.
“You heard of Superman?’ she asked them. They giggled and nodded. “You are supermen,” she said. “And I brought you bags of sweets because you are all so sweet.”
Her friends began to distribute the candy bags, but some of the boys refused them. They only wanted to get the candy directly from the Rebbetzin!
Over this past week, I’ve witnessed the Rebbetzin’s magic again and again. As long as she can talk, she will speak and engage hearts; as long as she can walk, she will move and accomplish. When there are so many uneasy questions in the Jewish world today, there is one answer that will always be true: Just get up and do — even if it’s hard or out of your comfort zone. Push yourself a little more, and then a little more.
The Rebbetzin, my grandmother, the grandmother I share with every Jew, no matter how old, is a living, breathing lesson in the art of pushing yourself, and doing it with grace, sincerity, and aplomb. And as the Rebbetzin waves her cane and speaks her mind, she leaves me with a lasting image of tutus and red capes, and I understand that those golden provinces are still within our grasps.
We are all ballerinas and supermen.