Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis:
The Big Apple Rebbetzin Enthralls Audiences Worldwide
By Tina Levitan
Jewish agony aunt, Jewish television evangelist, the founder of the Hineni outreach movement, best selling author and concentration camp survivor: this is Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. Recently she flew to Johannesburg at the invitation of the Union of Jewish Women, this diminutive, impeccably coiffed, spiritual dynamo, here to help rekindle the light of Judaism and to bring fellow Jews closer to their faith.
Her voice, tinged with the accent of her native Hungary, is soft yet urgent as she explains her mission, "We just ask that Jews look within their souls and find their roots by discovering Torah."
"If you study the recent history of American Jews, you see that the majority of hippies, yippies and the left were dominated by Jews," she said. "Buddhism? A tremendous amount of Jews. It is our mission to create a better world. To bring healing to the world. But if the Jew does not have the knowledge of Torah, a vacuum is left in his soul and he will gravitate to any-ism."
Onstage, Jungreis' voice goes from wail to near sob. "To be a Jew is the greatest privilege," she implores. "To be unaware of it is the greatest catastrophe-" spiritual genocide."
The Rebbetzin can trace her family tree- a great rabbinical dynasty to King David. Prior to the Holocaust there were 85 rabbis bearing the name Jungreis in Hungary. The Rebbetzin's maiden name was also Jungreis- she married a distant cousin. During World War II most of the family was decimated.
The Rebbetzin spent her early childhood in Szeged, Hungary where her father was chief Orthodox rabbi.
She remembers when Nazis came to her home "with bayonets and gave us two minutes to grab our belongings." Esther Jungreis and her father were both inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were the lucky ones still alive when the Allies liberated the camp.
In 1947 they moved to Brooklyn, New York where her father practiced as a rabbi. Esther was reunited with her cousin Theodore Jungreis whom she had known in Hungary. He became a rabbi and she married him, thus gaining the title rebbetzin, the Yiddish title of respect and endearment for a rabbi's wife.
Having experienced the Holocaust firsthand as an inmate of Bergen--Belsen, the Rebbetzin determined to devote her life to combating the spiritual holocaust that was occurring here in the United States.
Three decades ago, Rebbetzin Jungreis concluded that Jewish Americans were under siege from within. Low birthrate, intermarriage and assimilation created a dangerous situation. Ironically, the exercise of religion was so free under the First Amendment that an American is also virtually free from religion. These were the beatnik times when surnames were changed and Jewish traditions and heritage forgotten.
We had a generation that surpassed expectations in every field. But when it came to spirituality -we the People of the Book- were Jewish illiterates. "Something constructive had to be done."
So, in 1973, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis founded Hineni, the first Ba'al Teshuva (return to Judaism) movement. The word "Hineni" means "Here I am," which is what Abraham says to God to indicate his readiness when he is called on in Genesis.
Hineni was the magic word at Madison Square Garden on November 18, 1973 as the Felt Forum rocked with thousands of religiously "turned on" young people (and older ones, too) singing and dancing in response to Rebbetzin Jungreis' Rock and Soul presentation. Enthusiasm and fervor spread to the thousands more seated handclapping participants who filled the Forum to an overflowing ten thousand people at this first Jewish revival meeting in history.
Esther Jungreis took the center of the stage and held the audience captivated for an hour as she entreated the "People of the Book" to open the Book once more and learn who you are!"
"YOU ARE A JEW"- intoned Esther Jungreis in a dramatic whisper- "God spoke to you at Mount Sinai. Have you not forgotten? The fact that you are here- that you are searching shows that there is still some of the "pintele yid', some of the spark of Judaism still left in you."
Since then, Jungreis has brought her message of faith in God and Jewish tradition to people around the world.
Hineni programs have been held throughout the world- in the United States, Israel, Europe, South Africa, Canada and Australia. Its impact has been so overwhelming that standing room only crowds have gathered to hear the Rebbetzin from the Hollywood Palladium to the Johannesburg Coliseum, to Binyanei HaOuma in Jerusalem. She also speaks regularly for the United States Army and Navy as well as for the Israel Defense Forces.
Each week between fifteen hundred and two thousand people in Manhattan come to hear her class on the Torah portion. She also has a weekly Torah class broadcast coast to coast on the Jewish Television Network.
In 1989, the Hineni Heritage Center located in New York City opened its doors. The Center houses a multi-media museum and offers classes in Toroh studies, Shabbatons (weekends) and High Holiday services.
In addition to classes, Hineni conducts a singles program through which countless marriages have been made. Many of these young couples today attend Hineni Young Marrieds Seminars and their children participate in Hineni Torah Tots, linking three, and in some cases four generations.
At the Hineni Bill and Jill Roberts Outreach Center in Jerusalem, in addition to educational and social programs, guidance and counseling are offered to youth at risk.
For over forty years, the Rebbetzin has written a weekly column for The Jewish Press offering Torah based answers to everyday problems.
The Rebbetzin is the author of three bestselling books. Jewish Soul on Fire (William Morrow & Company) was acclaimed one of the ten best Jewish books of the year by B'nai B'rith. The committed Life: Principles of Good Living from Our Timeless Past published by Harper Collins, has been translated into Hebrew, Russian and Hungarian and is now in its eighth edition. Her newest book The Committed Marriage (Harper Collins) has been acclaimed as the ultimate marriage manual.
The books are built on stories, experiences and tales from the Bible, Talmud and Chassidic lore, as well as on the Rebbetzin's own life experiences.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis' campaign has won her space in numerous national newspapers and magazines. She has been accorded recognition by the State of Israel, the City of New York, awarded an honorary doctorate by Touro College, named Woman of the gear by several organizations and acclaimed by every segment of the international Jewish community. In this time she has raised four children, all now have families of their own, and her husband has passed away.
Great plans are continuously in the works at Hineni including trips to far away places where someone like the Rebbetzin is needed to restore and renew the core values of Judaism.
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