I write these words about one hour after the passing of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
My wife and I met Rebbetzin Jungreis in Newburgh, New York in the spring of 1974. As I walked into the synagogue, I put on a yarmulka for the first time in my life. Here is how I describe the following moments in my book, From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul:
“The speaker’s here? OK, let’s go. Rebbetzin who? What’s her name? What’s a ‘rebbetzin’ any-way? BOOM! The world turned upside down. This lady started to talk. She spoke so quietly, it was almost a whisper. All of a sudden, my insides were quivering. My soul—or whatever was in there—started shaking. My eyes were wet. Why was I crying? What’s going on here? What is she talking about?
“‘You are a Jew. You have created civilizations. You have given birth to every ideal that has shaped mankind: Justice, peace, love, the dignity of man, have all had their genesis in Your Torah. But, above all, you have been given the unique mission of proclaiming the Oneness of G-d.
“‘You are a Jew. You have traveled the four corners of the earth. You have become a part of every people and yet you have remained a people apart. You have known every form of oppression. Your body has been scorched by fire. You are weary. Your spirits flag; your memory fails. You have forgotten your past. You cannot even recall your father’s prayer. But there is one prayer, one little prayer, that you do remember, a prayer that has been a beacon of faith throughout the centuries of darkness, a prayer that has brought you back to the faith of your ancestors, a prayer that speaks of your own mission in life: ‘Shema Yisroel, Hear, O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.’
“Hey, what’s going on here? Why is she getting to me? The words kept marching on, like battalions of little soldiers, each one entering my ears, my heart, my mind. In all my life, some thirty years of listening to teachers, clergymen, professors, wise men, doctors, lawyers, artists, and friends, I had never heard such words before. But these quiet words entered my heart and made me cry. I was sobbing. I was ashamed, but I couldn’t help it. It was too much for me. Why did these words affect me so much?
“Since [childhood], I had always been afraid, afraid of the darkness in my heart. I thought to myself: maybe I am in essence dark and evil. Maybe I am going to go mad and be unable to control myself. I was so scared by that thought that I ran and ran and ran. And I couldn’t tell anybody because it was so horrible that I couldn’t even think about it. So I was alone in the universe with my horrible fears.
“And now we were in this room and this lady was speaking. Her words were marching into my heart. She was small, but she dominated the room. Her soul glowed on her face. It was shining. She was very quiet, but she was full of emotion. And I realized that what she was saying were the very words that I had been saying deep inside myself all my life. That vision of greatness, that noble being had found his words.
“It was at that moment that I realized, for the first time in my life, that I was not alone. There were others who shared my vision. Perhaps that noble person in my soul did not have to be trapped forever by the forces of darkness. Perhaps there was a way that good could really prevail in the real world.”
We wrote the Rebbetzin and she answered. We started the weekly trek to Brooklyn to hear Torah classes at the fledgling Hineni School. Our lives began to change. A few months later, we accompanied the Rebbetzin to Israel when she was invited to speak to the IDF soldiers. It was our first trip to Israel and our first Jewish experience. After returning to the U. S., we decided to change our lives. We moved to the Long Island community where the Rebbetzin’s husband was Rabbi. We got re-married … to each other! We were given Jewish names; I had a circumcision, and we had the honor to bring more children into the world. One of our children became the Rebbetzin’s daughter-in-law.
In 1974, “Jewish outreach” (kiruv) was basically unknown. There were a handful of courageous souls reaching out to their brothers and sisters. Rebbetzin Jungreis was one of the few, a voice in the darkness who brought light into this world. It took huge courage to stand on the stage of Madison Square Garden or at an Israeli Air Force base, look into the darkness and cry out, ‘You are a Jew!’ But she brought thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands home to G-d. She was not afraid to cry. She was not afraid to show how much she loved G-d and her People.
She brought us home, brought us into her family and brought to the Master of the Universe the pleasure of seeing His children returning in joy. She adopted not only us, but thousands of others. She nurtured them, she found matches for them to marry, she advised them, she introduced them to their own true selves. Not only that, but she made kiruv acceptable. From those early days when she was one of the few, the Movement grew to become the huge force it is today.
As a young girl, she survived Bergen Belsen. It was her mission that the Jewish People should survive forever as the unique nation that we are. She refused to allow the Eternal Chain to be broken. She brought her brothers and sisters home to G-d and now she has come home to the World of Truth, where her reward must be immeasurable. This was an Heroic Life!
May G-d wipe away all our tears!
Roy Neuberger is the author of four books, including Working Towards Moshiach (2015), 2020 Vision, (Feldheim Publishers – 2008), Worldstorm: Finding Meaning and Direction Amidst Today’s World Crisis (2003), and “From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul”(2000)
By: Roy Neuberger