This week the Jewish world lost one of the greatest lights of our generation. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis survived Bergen-Belsen death camp to become the architect of Jewish kiruv. Long before the words kiruv and ba’al teshuva were mainstream, Rebbetzin Jungreis was already utilizing every waking hour to save Jewish souls. She gained the respect of everyone, it made no difference whether they were orthodox, reform, conservative or unaffiliated. She became the Rebbetzin to soldiers, prime ministers, presidents, and probably the greatest shadchan ever known in the world.
The Rebbetzin passed away this week. We mourn and pay tribute with this short overview of her life.
Kiruv from childhood
Rebbetzin Jungreis was born in 1936 in Hungary. Her small city of Szeged held around 5,000 reform Jews. Her father, Rabbi Avroham HaLevi Jungreis, was dispatched to Szeged to build an Orthodox shul and reach out to the Jewish residents. He was ultimately appointed Chief Rabbi of the city. In March, 1944 the Nazis invaded Szeged. In May, 1944, the deportations began and the Rebbetzin’s family was among the second group to be transported to the death camps. Miraculously, she and her family survived and in 1947 made their way to New York’s East Flatbush neighborhood. Once there, her father began doing what he had always done—bringing Jews to yiddishkeit. He encouraged young Esther to invite her friends for Shabbat meals, and hence her kiruv work began.
From small beginnings
Rebbetzin Jungreis was driven by what she saw around her—an alarming amount of intermarriage and abandonment of Torah by American Jews. She often said that she could not believe she had survived the Shoah and now there was a spiritual holocaust unfolding before her very eyes. She decided to put on a large gathering at Madison Square Gardens, hoping to fill it with young Jews. With no connections at all, she found a donor who funded the costs of the entire event. Three years later, a standing room only crowd, thirsty for words of love and acceptance, filled Madison Square Gardens. That event gave birth to the largest kiruv organization in the world—Hineni—“here I am” in Hebrew.