“THE PROFESSOR AND THE REBBETZIN” by Fern Sidman

The story of Paula (Penina) Lester

Within each Jewish soul there is to be found the most potent of all components, the pintele yid, the Jewish spark that waits to be ignited, and hence to illuminate the world. Throughout history, the Jewish people have been blessed with many great seekers of wisdom and truth. Those individuals who constantly yearn for a genuine connection to the spiritual, who are driven by a desire to create a relationship with the G-d of truth, justice, mercy and compassion. The following is the miraculous story of a Jewish woman who has found her way back to her heritage, to her G-d and to a Torah life, with the personal supervision of Hashem and with the help of a very special Rebbetzin.

At age 58, Paula (Penina) Lester is a tenured university professor at CW Post and veteran academic who never imagined in her wildest dreams that she would ever be lighting Shabbos candles, praying from a Siddur and learning Torah. Having been born and raised in a secular Jewish home, she had limited exposure to authentic Judaism, yet her quest for spiritual fulfillment propelled her on a path that saw a multitude of twists and turns.

“When I was growing up I felt more American than Jewish,” says Penina. “I grew up in the Bronx, my family was basically secular, although my grandparents were Orthodox and we would often spend Shabbos afternoon with them, enjoying a wonderful meal. Our home was kosher, (although we ate non-kosher outside of the house), we would take off from public school on Jewish holidays, we would have Passover Sedorim and celebrate Chanukah but something was missing. I never really had a formal Jewish education as a child, I had never read the Bible and I certainly was ignorant of Torah teachings, yet I knew that I was a Jew. When I was about 13, I recall saving up my allowance so I could buy a sterling silver mezuzah which I still have in my car.”

Penina became immersed in the world of secular academia and went on to pursue a career in teaching like her mother before her. “I knew I wanted to go to Hunter College and become a teacher like my mother. I got my Bachelor’s degree from Hunter and also got my Masters degree in Spanish from Lehman College. Then it was on to Pace University where I received my Masters in educational administration. My last stop was New York University where I received a PhD in organizational and administrative studies. It was while I was in college that I stopped taking days off for Jewish holidays.”

It was while at Pace University that Penina met two people who not only became dear friends but also served as unknowing catalysts on her path back to Hashem and Torah. ” Rose was a professor that I had during my first graduate course at Pace University. Her husband Lloyd was also a professor that I had while I was pursuing my doctorate. They were not Jewish, however we became close friends and I considered Rose to be a mentor of sorts. They moved to Nevada in 1990 to take teaching positions out there and they invited me to visit. It was when I paid them a visit and spent a considerable amount of time with them that I found out that they were both devout Mormons. I’m grateful to Rose and Lloyd for inspiring me to read the scripture and getting me to pray everyday.”

Despite the Mormon influence of her friends, Penina never forgot that she was a Jew. “When I visited with Rose and Lloyd, I attended a Reform temple on Friday nights and Saturday morning but then joined them at the Mormon chapel on Sundays. Needless to say, I was searching for something. I knew something essential and true was missing from my life, yet I wasn’t quite sure what it was. My family and friends were concerned about the Mormon influence in my life. They knew that when I left New York I was a Jew, yet they didn’t know whether or not I would come home a Jew.”

In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, Penina felt drawn to join a synagogue and become part of a community. “I felt the need to be part of something bigger than myself. This was a major commitment on my part. I had never belonged to a synagogue before. I joined a Reform synagogue in my area. I gave up my social life on Friday night to attend services and to worship G-d, yet what I was searching for was still ambiguous.”

It was in the fall of 2006, that Penina felt the direct hand of Hashem in her quest for spiritual fulfillment. “I was asked to teach a course in Rockland County and I have never taught there before. This was my very first time. Only three students in my class were Jewish and one of them was Chaya Rosenberg, a young Orthodox woman who uses the name Cheryl in class. One day we started talking and she didn’t realize that I was Jewish. I told her that I was and we made this instant connection. She asked if I’d like to come and hear Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis of Hineni speak and I said that would be great.”

During this period of time Penina was busy with academic pursuits as well. “At this juncture in time I submitted a paper for an international conference to be held in Israel and I had never been to Israel before. The truth is I never really wanted to go to Israel. I never paid much attention to Israel and really didn’t understand it’s significance to the Jewish people. I figured if G-d wants me to go to Israel then my paper will be accepted. If G-d doesn’t want me to go then my paper won’t be accepted. Well, my paper was accepted and now I was actually going.”

It was now May of 2007 and Penina took her student up on her offer to hear Rebbetzin Jungreis speak. “I attended Rebbetzin Jungreis’ weekly Torah class and I realized that everything that what she was saying was so right, so true. I had tears flowing down my face before the class was over. I was deeply touched and very moved by her words of faith and inspiration. When you talk about G-d, you talk about something that’s an abstract concept, but not with Rebbetzin Jungreis. The Rebbetzin brings the Torah to life, makes you see your own personal connection to G-d. Her words reach deep down inside of you, they touch both your heart and soul and you cannot walk away without a tangible understanding of Hashem in our lives. It was then that I realized that my search was over. I understood that my destiny and role in life was as a Jew and I hungered to learn more and become closer with my G-d.”

Penina recalls her first private meeting with Rebbetzin Jungreis. “I told the Rebbetzin that I would be visiting Israel for the first time, that I was nervous and asked her for a brocha. In her own inimitable loving way, she not only gave me a blessing but gave me ten things to do while in Israel. She told me to go to the Kotel at midnight and pray, just pour my heart out to G-d, to ask His forgiveness for past sins and misdeeds and for an opportunity for to start fresh. At that point, she told me that even though I wasn’t born Jewish, I should still ask Hashem for His blessings. I politely told the Rebbetzin that I was Jewish, born to two Jewish parents. She said that before she meets someone for the first time Hashem her a feeling about that person. It was then that I understood that what the Rebbetzin was sensing was my friend Rose and her influence on me.”

This first meeting between Penina and the Rebbetzin would be the first of many more to come. “The Rebbetzin gave me my Hebrew name of Penina and told me that from now on, she would be my spiritual mother. She gave me two very special blessings. One of which was a blessing that her father would give her and she pointed to his picture on the wall and said remember this face. Remember that my father will always be with you. As tears once again filled my eyes she gave me another blessing and told me that when I’m in Israel, I should keep Shabbos, adhere to its laws and to keep strictly kosher. This was all very new to me and very challenging but I did it along with the many other things she advised me to do.”

Penina’s experience in Israel was a most powerful one as she kept the Rebbetzin and her instructions in mind at all times. She felt the unique connection between herself and her G-d, between the Jewish people and this holy land that G-d gave them. Upon her return from Israel, Penina began to attend the Rebbetzin’s classes regularly and has formed a close and palpable bond with her Torah teacher and spiritual mother. “I felt the direct and personal supervision from Hashem since the day that I was asked to teach in Rockland County and met Chaya who introduced me to the Rebbetzin. It was as if Hashem heard my inner cries for the truth, for meaningful direction on my spiritual journey. I know that Hashem brought me to Rebbetzin Jungreis and the Rebbetzin feels that I was brought to her for a reason. Since that day, the Rebbetzin has set me up with some very special people and lovely homes to spend Shabbos, and now I am becoming more observant of Torah laws each day.

Penina continued, “Here I am, in my late 50s and my seemingly endless search has reached it’s final destination. I have returned home. I have returned to Hashem, to Torah and mitzvos and I am exceptionally grateful and enormously thankful for the guidance, direction and love of my holy and revered Torah teacher, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. May Hashem continue to bless her with strength and may her words of Torah fill the hearts of all Jews from all backgrounds and levels of observance and through her love for every Jew, may we be zoche to the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.”

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Fern Sidman holds a B.A, in political science from Brooklyn College. She was the educational coordinator for the Betar Youth Movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was national director of the Jewish Defense League from 1983-1985. She was a researcher for several books written by Rabbi Meir Kahane, ZTK”L. She was the managing editor of the publication entitled, The Voice of Judea, and is a regular contributor to its web site. She is currently a writer and journalist living in New York City. Her articles have appeared in The Jewish Press, The Jewish Advocate, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and numerous Jewish and general web sites including, Front Page Magazine, Daniel Pipes and Michael Freund.
We are delighted to have Ms. Sidman as a regular contributor to the Jesus is Lord, A Worshipping Christian’s Blog.

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