By: Dave Gordon
Communityjoins the Jewish world in mourning the loss of Esther Jungreis, a”h
Five decades of devoted work as a successful and beloved outreach professional, during which time she brought the beauty and profundity of Torah to untold numbers of Jews, would have sufficed to make Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis a legend in her own time. But beyond her outreach work with the Manhattan-based Hineni organization, the Rebbetzin touched millions of lives through her work as a shadchanit (matchmaker), marriage counselor, and best-selling author of treasured and classic volumes of Torah wisdom.
The renowned educator, lecturer and author passed away on 19 Av (August 23), at the age of 80.
Life is a Test
The rebbetzin’s books include Jewish Soul on Fire; The Committed Life: Principles of Good Living from Our Timeless Past; A Guide to Finding A Soulmate and Building a Relationship Through Timeless Biblical Wisdom; The Committed Marriage.Her final book, Life is a Test, was published a decade ago, in 2006, and it describes the chilling personal strugglesshe experienced growing up, how she overcame them, and how her life’s mission was to bring Judaism to the masses.
Esther Jungreis was born in Szeged, Hungary in 1936. Her father, Rav Avrohom Jungreis, was city’s Chief Rabbi. In June 1944, he and 1,600 others were on a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, but were miraculously saved by lawyer Rudolph Kastner, who bribed Adolf Eichmann for their release. Esther was one of very few members of her family who survived the Nazi death machine.
In 1947, after miraculously surviving the Holocaust, the Jungreis family immigrated to East Flatbush with no money and no command of the English language. Esther connected with a distant cousin with the same last name, Theodore (Meshulem), and the two married.
By 1973, RebbetzinJungreis launched the Hineni organization, which was aimed at bringing back Jews leaving Judaism, and strengthening Jewish identity among those who strove to grow spiritually. She began teaching Torah, and eventually booked Madison Square Garden in an event that became legendary in the kiruv(outreach) community when tens of thousands of Jews showed up and were visibly inspired by the rebbetzin.
The Rebbetzin and the Sephardic Community
Settling in North Woodmere, Theodore led Congregation Ohr Torah, and they raised four children.
The rebbetzin’s reputation as an inspiring leader quickly spread throughout New York, including Boro Park, Flatbush, Midwood, and even the Syrian community, with whom she forged a close and warm relationship. In fact, her initialoutreach efforts included speaking at various Sephardic and Syrian synagogues and homes.
“This was before anyone else had classes,” the rebbetzin told Community Magazinein a 2005 interview. “It was meaningful and special.” She added, “My approach is the same for all Jews all over the world. At the end of the day we’re all Am Israel; the same heritage of Torah, the same Hashem. And what connects us is not the superficial nonsense of culture and society, but our deep roots in Torah. And that’s what I tap into.”
One of our modern tests, she pointed out, is the world’s relationship with the Jewish people.
In Life is a Test, Rebbetzin Jungreis explained that Avraham became the patriarch of the Jewish People not because of his smarts or his charisma, but because he passed all the tests that Gd placed before him.
She writes: “There are those who view life as a game, and to them, the end goal is fun… entire industries have been created to indulge them in their quest. From movies to sports, to the latest in computer games, there are a myriad of distractions guaranteed to numb and anesthetize their hearts and minds.”
She calls our attention to the fact that anything which is meaningful requires hard work. “That which is good is based on responsibility and discipline, giving and sacrifice – taking the harder, more difficult path over the easy, attractive one.”
Rebbetzin Jungreis embarked on her extraordinary journey of outreach at a time when nobody thought it was possible, when most others resigned themselves to the reality that the younger generation of American Jews was incapable of embracing our ancient tradition. The rebbetzin passionately believed in the power of the Torah’s beauty and depth to penetrate the hearts of even the most spiritually estranged Jews, and in the power of the Jewish spark latent within the soul of each and every Jewish man and woman. She saw what others didn’t – the innate goodness and sanctity of every Jewish soul, and by seeing this spark, she was able to ignite it and kindle a raging fire of religious commitment. May we all follow her example of love for all Jews and unshakable faith in the beauty and power and our ancestral heritage.