Waiting for her flight to take off from Denver to New York, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis is on the phone doing what she does best: speaking from the heart about her lifelong mission to rekindle the connection between assimilated Jews and God.
The author of four best-selling books, including “The Committed Life” (HarperOne, 1999) and “Life Is a Test: How to Handle Life’s Challenges Successfully” (Mesorah, 2006), Jungreis is one of the most recognizable names on the Jewish speaking circuit. This diminutive dynamo, whose dramatic and often emotional speaking style prompted the New York Post to dub her “The Jewish Billy Graham,” decided to tackle the growing crisis of assimilation head-on in 1973, launching her outreach organization, Hineni (Here I Am). While Jungreis was already filling halls with up to 1,000 people, it was still daring to book Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum for Hineni’s inaugural event. About 20,000 people showed up.
In the decades since then, Jungreis has “become a legend,” according to Barbara Janov, Hineni’s executive director, who has been with the organization since its inception. “She has single-handedly done what many other outreach organizations only try to do.”
Jungreis is currently traveling the country, speaking in conjunction with the screening of a new documentary, “Triumph of the Spirit,” produced by Hineni, based on her life during the Holocaust. On Wednesday, Dec. 9, Jungreis spoke at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for the screening, noting that the purpose of the film is to highlight stories of the countless victims whose valiant behavior even in the midst of Nazi horror reflect the highest levels of Jewish values.
“They never forgot they were goy kadosh, a holy nation,” she said. “This movie inspires you to live as a Jew for those who can no longer live, to study for those who can no longer study, light candles for those who can no longer light candles. Despite the subject matter, it leaves you feeling up, not down.”
Jungreis was born during a Passover seder in 1936 in Szeged, Hungary, “just as they opened the door for Elijah the Prophet,” she said.
She and her father survived the Bergen-Belsen death camp, but she never uses guilt as a reason for Jews to embrace tradition. “I believe that every Jewish heart is like a computer,” she said. “If you bring up the right program, then you see that moment at Mount Sinai, you can kindle the flame. There is a pintele Yid [Jewish spark] in every Jewish neshama [soul]. It’s never lost.”
Jungreis’ power to convey her love for all Jews may explain why she claims never to have encountered a hostile audience, even among the most secular groups. “I never mince words,” she said. “I ask people to embark upon Jewish self-discovery. I ask them, do you know your purpose? What does your life mean? What does it mean to be a Jew? One of our prayers asks, ‘Please God, help us not to labor in vain.’ If we don’t have our identity as a Jew, our life is a failure. Nobody wants to live their life as a mistake.”
Her prodigious energies would be remarkable in a person half her age. She teaches three classes a week in New York, writes a weekly advice column, counsels people in person or via phone and e-mail till 2 a.m. or later most nights and often keeps the travel schedule of a presidential candidate. A few weeks ago, after speaking to a group of about 500 people in Connecticut at an Aish HaTorah conference, Jungreis sat until after midnight, speaking individually to people who waited in line for her advice.
During that evening’s talk, Jungreis served up a classic medley of inspiring stories from her life, meant to underscore the spiritual power and beauty of Yiddishkayt. She spoke of her father, part of a centuries-long dynasty of Hungarian rabbis, and how he approached a group of teenage boys in a DP camp who had been orphaned by the Nazis. Embittered by their mind-numbing tragedies, the boys made it clear to Rabbi Jungreis — the rebbetzin married a cousin with the same surname — that they wanted nothing to do with him or his God.
“He didn’t judge them or ask them to do anything,” Jungreis told the audience, her Hungarian accent still notable. “But every night, he would say the bedtime ‘Shema’ with them, and kiss each one, saying, ‘Good night, my sweet child.’”
Jungreis credits her father’s gentle, loving approach for bringing each of the teens back to tradition over time.
Although Jungreis’ mission hasn’t changed over the years, she has altered her tools. “God is ‘in’ today,” she said, “so it’s easier for secular Jews to catch up to the gentiles, who have no problem saying, ‘I believe in God.’” The Internet also brings her message more immediately to people around the world, rendering outsized Madison Square Garden events passé. But primarily, she is called upon to offer solace to people who are suffering personal difficulties on a more widespread basis than in previous decades.
“We are living in the footsteps of the Mashiach [Messiah],” she said, “a time that our sages predicted would be filled with pain and trouble. It’s a cold, detached world today, and there is so much heartache…. When people pour out their hearts to me, God gives me the right words to say to each person. Sometimes, just knowing that somebody cares and has a brachah [blessing] for you is so soothing.”
“Triumph of the Spirit” is expected to be available on DVD in about eight months. For more information about Rebbetzin Jungreis, visit hineni.org.
Judy Gruen (judygruen.com) is the author of “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement” (Creative Minds Press, 2007).