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I can still remember the weekend, over 50 years ago at the Pioneer Country Club in upstate New York, when my parents met Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi and Esther Jungreis. We were sitting together in the lobby and the rabbi turned to my father and said, “The Jewish Press needs an advice column by a woman.”
“It sounds like a good idea, but who would write it?” my dad asked.
“My wife,” Rabbi Jungreis responded instantaneously. “She’s very good at giving advice.”
And so began Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint, the longest running column in the history of The Jewish Press and still going strong. Letters come to the Rebbetzin from readers all over the world who hope to see their questions answered in the paper.
Her connection to the paper, she tells me, is deeply personal: “Despite many offers from other periodicals, I have only to picture your holy father and your very special mother, whom I loved, to know why I continue to write for The Jewish Press.”
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Esther Jungreis’s father, Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, was descended from a long line of rabbanim and the Jungreis name was well known throughout Hungary. Esther was born in Szeged, at the time the second largest city in Hungary and home to that country’s largest Reform community. It was into that milieu that Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis had come, with his long black beard and long black coat, to build an Orthodox shul.
“He built that shul and welcomed everyone,” says Rebbetzin Jungreis. “It mattered not who they were or how committed they were to Judaism, everyone felt welcome in his shul.”
During World War II, Szeged was the collection point for slave labor. Young Jewish men were sent out of the country to help the Nazi war effort. Rav Jungreis went to see those boys every day and would sing a song, like a prayer in Yiddish, with messages for them from their parents, and distribute honey cookies his wife, Rebbetzin Miriam, had made. He would take along young Esther, who carried medicine sewn into the hem of her coat to be distributed as needed.
At that time the Jungreis family was hiding a pregnant woman, and when her time came to give birth it was Rebbetzin Miriam who performed the delivery and kept the baby alive.
When deportation came, the Jungreis family was sent to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. But the woman and her baby were sent to a camp in Vienna, where Esther’s maternal grandfather, Rav Tzvi Hirsh HaCohen, was the rav. He protected her, and when the war was nearly over and some people were making it out to Switzerland, he gave up his seat on a transport for her and her baby. Rav Tzvi was eventually murdered but that little boy survived and today is the well-known Tzelemer Rav.nextpage
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After liberation the Jungreis family came to the United States and moved into a small basement apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. There were plenty of Jewish children in the neighborhood but they barely knew they were Jews. Rabbi Jungreis bought lollipops and distributed them to the children who eagerly accepted the treats from this man who must have looked like a fairy-tale figure to them.
Rabbi Jungreis encouraged young Esther to invite children into their home. She was reluctant, as it was a small basement apartment without any luxuries. But her father urged her to do her part to save these Jewish souls, assuring her that Hashem would help. She soon discovered that all the children wanted to come. It seems the magic of a Shabbos table was more enticing than fancy furniture or games outside.
Eventually Rabbi Jungreis built a shul and a yeshiva in Canarsie so that American children could learn about their heritage. Rebbetzin Miriam cooked lunch for all the children and baked cookies she would give out every morning as she welcomed each child to school. She would greet the students with a smile and tell them to make a berachah over the cookies.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis recalls those days with great pride. “I meet people all over the world,” she says, “who remember the love they received from my parents.”
The years passed and Esther became a bride.
“My husband, Rabbi Meshulem, came to the United States as an orphan who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust,” she says. “He was a third cousin of mine and I was honored to marry him.”
He was a learned man, tall and handsome with a twinkle in his eye. People referred to him as the Gentle Giant, due to his height and gentle nature. His first position was in Paterson, New Jersey, where the family lived in a small apartment above the shul. Some time afterward they moved to Long Island and Rabbi Meshulem built a Torah community in North Woodmere. He was the much-loved rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah and the chaplain of the local police department.
Esther, who had been in training for the position of rebbetzin all her life, was the perfect helpmate to him. He was very proud of his famous wife, and would refer to himself as “the rebbetzin’s husband.”
Sadly, Rabbi Meshulem died nearly 20 years ago, leaving a great void in the lives of the Rebbetzin, the rest of the family, and his beloved congregants.
Rebbetzin Jungreis described his last days at Memorial Sloan Kettering. True to his considerate nature, he didn’t want to bother the nurses and seldom asked for anything. But when Rebbetzin Jungreis came to visit he would give her lists of people he thought might make a good shidduch for people they knew.
When their friend the police commissioner came to visit him in the hospital, he told the Rebbetzin, “I always wondered what the meaning of G-d was but since I met your husband I know. G-d comes from the word ‘goodness’ and your husband walks with that goodness reflected in his eyes, in his gentle words and in his loving, warm ways. I will be forever grateful for having had the privilege to know him.”
At the rabbi’s funeral the entire police department joined the congregation to honor his memory. “At one point,” recalls Rebbetzin Jungreis, “the procession came to a halt. It seems the ducks and geese my husband had been feeding for years at a nearby pond came out through the locked fence and walked along the road, in silent tribute to the person who had fed them for so long. And then almost as suddenly as they had come they turned around and went back into the pond.”
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Rebbetzin Jungreis with Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, zichrona l’vracha
I ask the Rebbetzin how the idea of starting an organization like Hineni came about.
It really started back when my father would encourage me to bring in the neighborhood children. But the older I got the more I realized how great the mission really was. I was asked to speak at a Young Israel collegiate convention. I looked out at the audience and told myself, ‘If I were to have an organization, I would speak to reach people, to wake people up. I would even speak in Madison Square Garden to students and young people. I would call it Rock and Soul, to wake up their souls.’
“From there the idea grew. My father was always encouraging me to reach out and before I officially started Hineni I asked him to take me to all the rabbanim for a berachah. He took me to chassidic rebbes and yeshivish rabbis, to Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, among others, and all gave me their blessings.”
Someone suggested that Rebbetzin Jungreis contact a man named Joseph Wohl who had built Long Island Jewish Hospital. If she could convince him of the importance of her cause, he would probably underwrite her grand Madison Square Garden plan. The only problem was, she didn’t know anyone who knew Mr. Wohl. She spoke to her father and he blessed her and told her that if she tried, Hashem would help her succeed.
“With my father’s blessings I looked up Mr. Wohl in the phone book and called him. I asked to meet him about a lifesaving idea. He invited me to his home and I went, keeping my father’s blessing in my heart. I spoke to him and his wife about my idea and I was passionate about it. Joseph Wohl gave me a check to cover the whole Madison Square Garden event. He became the first chairman of Hineni and his daughter Ellie is still the president of the Hineni Women’s League.”
Now that she had the money, she had to figure out how to fill such a large venue.
“I got a van that was outfitted with a stage that could roll out and I went all over college campuses with music playing, to get them to come to the event,” she says. “I went to Queens College to their Yavneh group. I was told that they didn’t have many members but I went anyway. Seven hundred students showed up. The New York Post reported on that event saying the Jews have their Billy Graham. She’s 5 feet tall and she’s blond.”
It took three years to put the Madison Square Garden event together but in November 1973 the Rebbetzin filled the Garden. With the seats sold out, people were sitting on the stage. Rebbetzin Jungreis had invited all the Jewish organizations to have booths in the hall and to give out their literature. It was billed a Night of Unity.
My mother, Irene Klass, covered the event for The Jewish Press.
“I had to carry the whole night by myself,” the Rebbetzin recalls. “I started by saying YOU ARE A JEW. YOU KNEW SUFFERING. YOU ENTERED THE FLAMES. BUT YOU FORGOT YOUR PAST. YOU ONLY KNEW ONE THING…. SHEMA YISRAEL HASHEM ELOKEINU HASHEM ECHAD.
And I went on from there.
“The consul general of Israel was there. The next day he called me and said I had to go to Israel and speak to the soldiers. Shortly afterward I was speaking at the Miami Beach Convention Hall and was approached by a young man who said he wanted to come to Israel with me and that he was a musician. I asked what kind of music he played and he said jazz. I thought about it and decided it was a good idea.
“I told my mother that if I go to Israel I want to take yarmulkes, so we ordered yarmulkes made of jeans material and my mother sewed the Hineni symbol on them. Now I was ready to go to Israel.”
The Rebbetzin’s first stop in Israel was at the country’s largest air force base.
“I started to speak and after each story I told I had the jazz musician playing. The air force men didn’t know what to make of this, but as I continued speaking, these tough men began to cry. Then I spoke in Jerusalem at Binyanei HaUmah, the convention center. A young man from Hashomer Hatzair [the far-left youth organization] was waiting for me at the end. He said, ‘You have to come to Tel Aviv.’ So I went and spoke at the Cinerama in Tel Aviv. Someone in the audience jumped on the stage and said, ‘You have to come to South Africa.’ And so it mushroomed.”
The message was getting out and Rebbetzin Jungreis was reaching people long disenfranchised. And she indeed traveled to South Africa – to Johannesburg and Capetown and Durban – and to other countries all over the world. Wherever she went, young people approached her with tears in their eyes and told her she’d awakened feelings they never knew they had.
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During these years the Rebbetzin was also raising her family and she is quick to give her mother credit for taking over the house on days she was traveling. Hineni was really a family project with her husband and her parents standing firmly behind her.
(Today her children also lecture in the Hineni Center.)
In the beginning Hineni met in her father’s shul but in the early 1980s the organization acquired a building in Manhattan at 232 West End Ave., where classes are given every week and shidduchim are frequently made.
Rebbetzin Jungreis teaches every Thursday night at 8:30 and everyone is welcome. After her lessons people wait to talk to her and it is from these discussions that many a successful match has been made.
The Rebbetzin’s stories and adventures are too numerous for these pages, so I will relate just one more and readers will have to go to the Hineni Center and ask the Rebbetzin to tell the rest.
A number of years ago the Rebbetzin was traveling back to New York from Portland, Oregon, where she had been invited to speak. On the plane a young man, noticing the very attractive Rebbetzin, asked her if she had fun in Portland. She replied that she had been in Portland to lecture. He asked, a little incredulously, “Lecture about what?” She then asked if he was Jewish. Very defensively he said, “Yeh, what of it?” and sat down.
Just then the stewardess came by with the meals. She gave two kosher trays to the Rebbetzin and her companion and asked the young man if he wanted a ham and cheese sandwich or some other item. He chose the ham and cheese.
The Rebbetzin quickly said, “No, you can’t have that; you are a Jew and that isn’t kosher.” The fellow said he didn’t keep kosher and ham and cheese was his favorite sandwich. She told him he had made a contract.
“With whom?” he asked.
The young man looked at the Rebbetzin and said, “Lady, you’re crazy.” As he ate his sandwich he told her how delicious it was.
A few hours later at the baggage claim he went over to her and said, “Lady, you really should get help because you are really crazy.”
The Rebbetzin gave him her card and said, “Check it out and come see me sometime and I will teach you about it.” He pocketed the card with a laugh.
Seven years later a young man came to the Hineni Center wearing a suit and a black hat and all the other trappings of an Orthodox Jew. He approached the Rebbetzin and asked if she remembered him. Her usual reply is “You look familiar” (she never wants to hurt people’s feelings when she doesn’t recognize them).
He rook out the card she had given him years before. “I didn’t forget what you told me on the plane from Portland and I checked it out. And now I’ve come to ask you if you also remember seeing a girl at Sinai who could be the girl for me.”
Sure enough, the Rebbetzin knew just the right girl. The couple got married and are now part of the Hineni family.
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One would think that running a large organization like Hineni, writing a weekly column for The Jewish Press, and raising a beautiful family (all of whom are now actively part of the Hineni adventure) would leave the Rebbetzin very little time for anything else. However, during these years she has also written five books with the sixth, Be a Blessing: The Purpose of Man, due out in the near future.
In addition to all that, she still flies all over the world spreading her own version of outreach. Her father’s blessings have definitely come true, as she has returned so many lost Jews to the fold.
And she doesn’t let anything stop her – not a broken hip and not a torn meniscus. She just keeps going. How, I ask her, does she keep up a pace that would tire a much younger person?
“I take my inspiration from Tehillim,” she replies.
“The psalm for the Sabbath day – Psalm 92, verses 15-16: