Esther Feinstein
Esther Feinstein

Adopting a Rebbetzin

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Our reactions under challenging times become like the strokes of a paintbrush.  

“Hi, I just heard. I’m so sorry! May the Omnipresent (One) comfort you among the remnant mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” I said to my friend and adopted mother; these words, words that no one wants to hear, and no one knows how to truly be comforted when hearing these words. What they do know is it’s their turn now with grief.

Our reactions under challenging times become like the strokes of a paintbrush, hesitant at first, unsure what to say or how to react to those in need of our support. This time our help fell on someone very close to us. It was her, the heroine in our lives, but wasn’t it she who was supposed to have all the answers? 

It became a tradition of ours, my friend and me, that we speak once a week to check in with each other, and sometimes are privileged to enjoy learning Torah together– like an adopted mother to her daughter. There is this constant worrying that she places herself with, and perhaps most would not appreciate it, but to me, I enjoy each minute of it. I let her hear what is behind the scenes in my emissary-filled days and don’t feel the need to be on guard of what she would think of me.

I live 16 hours away from my home state New York, so I was empowered by her kindness and relished in how she built up my husband and me. She embraced us and gifted us a special place in her family.

People always say that life is like a box of chocolates, but on days when we lose those that are close, I feel it is life throwing you rain showers of bitterness. One can wish amid tragedy that the train of time would stop instead of rolling on by. Life keeps moving, but I just want that train to stop and be able to say goodbye to this good man. 

Things were never going to be the same, and now I understand what happens when a family adopts a rebbetzin. Our hearts drowned in the thunder together with them. Strange though it felt, I could almost sense the embarrassment of the angel of death; it was clearly like this bad angel knew he took too good of a man from our world. 

Each phone call spoke volumes of her love to adopt me and my kids became her family. Each time we spoke before she hung up the phone, she said, “Will you send my love to my boys?” It was her signature stamp that brought me a sense of family away from home.

However, her husband, a fatherly man who never overstepped his ground and knew when to chime in with a sweet joke or kind word, made the holiday time celebrated and held the feeling of home. It recaptured that feel of New York all in one swoop, but now he had sadly passed away, and the recapturing of it all became a thing of the past. 

My heart raced, and my mind was trying to find meaning to my friend’s pauses, her spacing between words, but the irritating lack of proper phone connection confused me, and I found myself distracted and unfocused. It still didn’t register to me that my husband and I lost such a dear friend, one close like family. I had no words and found myself strangely quiet on the other side of the line. 

I was crying silently and looking to reach out to my adopted mother but knew better; somethings had to be invited. Grief, although never welcome, needs to be dealt with and in one’s own way. I always thought that when someone is in pain and is grieving, I would not hang up or walk away speechless, but here I was, bereft of words and oddly silent. 

Not a sound, a murmur, a hint of a mutter, for I was shut out from my own function to communicate with my friend and adopted mother. It was clear to me how much I treasured and missed this grandfatherly man, and my fountain of words had temporarily seemed to cease entirely. 

She, a motherly woman who always treated me as one of her own, took me in as her newly adopted daughter. However, now, I tried to reach my hand across the aisle but struggled within and was reluctant if this was my place or not. 

Could I switch roles with this adopted mother of mine? It could never erase who really filled the shoes, and I knew that it would never feel right to me. I realized the struggle to overextend my hand has to be silenced because no daughter can take her Jewish mother’s great place, even if only to comfort her.  

 While I sat there quietly, tears poured through slowly exiting my eyes and the phone fell silent in my lap. It was then that I came to remember how we met. It was only a few short years before that I imagined once again that the front door slammed shut. 

It was first quiet, then loud, then loud again; it began creaking, pounding, and then the door rested itself for about 30 seconds. One might think that the door would stay finally shut and quiet, but the door kept slamming again and again, and I realized it must be a family of many remarkable generations coming to visit us. 

Where were they coming from? How did they hear of our new, small, ranch-like Chabad house?  Then a small young voice and a wise older one brought me up to speed with our new guests. 

“Hi, Grandma, didn’t we just come from here?” 

“No, sweetie, this is a different Chabad house.” 

“But the rabbi and rebbetzin look and smile the same as the other rabbi and rebbetzin did. Are you sure, Grandma?”

“Yes, That rabbi and his wife are two hours away, and this couple is much closer to our house.”

“Oh, OK, Grandma, I’m going to check the kitchen for some cookies. Is that OK?” 

“Sure, just don’t eat them all, and ask the rebbetzin first!”

I listened quietly from the other side of the wall in our first Chabad house’s living room. It sparked excitement within me, and I became enthused to hear this family’s story and how they knew of Chabad. Almost instantly, I fell in love with them and cherished them as an extended part of our family.

I remembered each Sukkos that this beautiful family with a rich Jewish heritage of giving and helping others would come and celebrate with us. The small talk in the kitchen just brought you the feeling of revisiting your grandmother’s kitchen. This powerful woman always took each chance to uplift me and handed her warmth and embrace to me physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

She seems to be always overflowing with a motherly kindness that can never be replaced. Her husband, quiet and at peace with life, also held this same type of lending a grandfatherly ear, word, and hand to one in need. 

He seemed to move mountains with his quiet but gentle nature; his little grandson gives comfort to us and channels this same great positivity towards others. If I could close my eyes, it is almost like I could hear the same words being spoken through his little grandson’s phrases, riddles, and Torah sayings. 

It happens that one finds after having many children, climbing stairs is not their best friend. As I climbed the stairs holding more food to bring to the sukkah, I took a rest and heard his soft words whisper to me, “Rebbetzin, can I take it to the table?” I felt relieved and surprised by his ability to be such a mentch.

 There was never this sense of needing to ask this fatherly man for a hand, but he was cued in and sensed what was needed and gently requested in a way to not hurt my feelings or cause me any embarrassment. 

It felt like the time would last forever, but one knows in their heart that time moves on and those we love take their journey.  It was the next year already, and our hectic lives never take a rest. 

The sweet melodies and the humming of familiar tunes from so long ago begin. On Yom Kippur, we are told to ask G-d for forgiveness, and the powerful but sad song is slowly said that terrifies each person, young or old. Kol Nidre, a song that stirs powerful emotions from within each, is that pinnacle verse that is sung that pierces through one’s heart, “Who will live and who will die.” 

I noticed one might not feel well this day and what will be each one’s fate. I worried about my congregants as an overprotective mother hugging the cradle. 

It was this fatherly man that I feared the most. His usual strong but quieter presence seemed to bring us a sense of calm and peace. However, today on Yom Kippur, he seemed white and not feeling so well. His young grandson asked him if he wanted to sit down, but he gently refused, because it was Yom Kippur after all, and one must stand for this part of the service. 

Whispering among close family began, and my friend seemed worried like her children did, but with time he seemed better as no one thought of the writing on the wall and what story it told. 

The year seemed to fly by, and it was right after Pesach time already. They pulled up and surprised the kids and me. It was a sunny day, and I was cleaning my lichter, Shabbos candlesticks, when they came in and wanted to spend time. It was a great feeling to be a part of this great family experience. They had a surprise for me and held out a cookbook with all different types of salads. 

It became their tradition after each boy of mine was born to give me a cookbook. I always loved this and felt it was in great taste. It felt so natural that their car would pull up like parents visiting one of their own kids.

Another holiday approached, a celebration soon after Pesach, and his passing arrived. It was a sunny day, but we felt it tasted of the rain, and no comfort was to be ours. Instead, looking at our reflection in a mirror, the glass became twisted, and what we saw didn’t reflect the heart. 

He was a man who was a dear friend to us, upheld the epitome of a gentle, grandfatherly nature, and his character brought its weight in gold to us emissaries. I wish that I had a  window of time to know before he passed and had the chance to say my goodbyes, but this was not meant to be.  

However, I knew no matter the pain that captures us by surprise in its momentum, time’s window won’t stop, and the idea of the last goodbye becomes a wish on top of a dusty shelf of what-could-have-been.

We felt the hourglass of time had run out, but unexpectedly. No one asked our permission to take such a kind, strong, righteous man, and bring him back to his keeper. It felt our day there was no light, and instead one could not break up the dark. 

Our world felt like it was falling apart, but we had to continue onward as emissaries do– like the stars hold the moon, and one keeps moving on with his Ner Tamid watching us closely each Shabbos.

About the Author
Born in New York state into a family on Shlichus, Esther was formally trained in Chabad institutions in America and Canada as an educator and community leader with the lifelong goal of helping an under-served Jewish populace. She and her husband, along with their children, have been serving the local community, as well as the Northeast Wisconsin region, for over a decade, providing for any and all needs of everyone's personal journey with G-d.
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