Esther Jungreis, an icon of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States and Israel, died on Aug. 23 in New York at the age of 80. The author of books about spirituality, Rebbetzin Jungreis, as she was known, was the founder of Hineni, a New York-based Jewish outreach organization.
“I met her several times and years ago had her speak to a group of 100 women I had brought to Israel. It changed their lives,” said Lori Palatnik, the founding director of the Rockville-based Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. “She was a Torah giant and a link to generations of giants. Her constant aura was a love for every Jew, no matter what level of observance. She was the pioneer in Orthodox women’s leadership, and was my ultimate role model, and the role model of many rebbetzins [rabbi’s wives] around the world who looked up to her in every way.”
Jungreis was born in 1936 in Szeged, Hungary, where her father was chief rabbi. A child survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she and her family resettled in 1947 in Brooklyn, where she married her distant cousin, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis. She and her husband, who died in 1996, founded the North Woodmere Jewish Center/Congregation Ohr Torah on Long Island in 1964.
Jungreis’ aim, she said, was to bring secular Jews home to their religion, but not to a particularly specific form of it, The New York Times reported. “There is not one page in Torah that says anything about being Orthodox or Reform. These modern-day manifestations have only created disharmony. I believe that every Jew is a Jew; we have one Shabbat, one God, one Torah and one faith,” she told Malka Drucker, the author of “White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America.”
In 1973, Jungreis founded Hineni to bring young Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism by offering Torah classes, singles events, and Shabbat and holiday services. She gave a speech that November in which she spoke about the biblical Abraham’s response to God’s call to service: “Hineni” or “Here I am.”
“She was a remarkable Torah scholar and a descendant of an illustrious line of Jewish leaders,” said Rabbi Avidan Milevsky of Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown. “She was a dynamic lecturer and author. Her main legacy is her ability to appeal to a diverse and broad audience. She was particularly influential in her tremendous outreach work. Personally, it was her focus on faith in difficult times that had the greatest impact on me.”
Her books include, “The Jewish Soul on Fire,” “The Committed Life: Principles of Good Living from Our Timeless Past,” “The Committed Marriage” and “Life is a Test.”
“Rebbetzin Jungreis was a visionary who loved the Jewish people deeply and believed in the people around her,” added Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum, executive director of Aish HaTorah of Greater Washington. “Her deep belief that the spark in every Jew could be reignited drove her to build people and do great things.”
Jungreis was part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders who accompanied President George W. Bush to Israel in 2008 in honor of the Jewish state’s 60th birthday. Other members included Elie Wiesel, Ronald Lauder, Henry Kissinger and Sheldon Adelson.
“She took a ground-breaking public role in order to inspire thousands to connect to their precious and priceless Jewish heritage, but never compromised her values,” Palatnik said.
Jungreis is survived by her two brothers, Jacob, a rabbi, and Benjamin; two sons, Yisroel and Osher, both rabbis; two daughters, Chaya Sora Gertzulin and Slovi Wolff; 23 grandchildren; and 32 great-grandchildren, The New York Times reported.
In the early 1960s, The Jewish Press began publishing her advice column, “Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint,” which ran for 45 years. Her last column was published posthumously on Aug 25.
In it, she wrote:
“Our communities and families continue to be splintered, and instead of love and good will, factionalism and mean-spiritedness prevail. God keeps sending us wake-up calls, but we remain obdurate.
“The time has come for all of us to change, to become the people our Creator meant us to be. Instead of working on others, let us work on ourselves. If we do that, we will transform the world and create the environment in which Mashiach can come.”
—JTA News and Features contributed to this article.