By: Fern Sidman
Close to 1000 people gathered on Wednesday, August 24, at the Agudath Israel of Long Island in Far Rockaway to bid their final farewell to Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, 80, who passed away on Tuesday after battling a long illness.
While grief was etched on the faces of those who came from far and near to remember this remarkable woman, it was also an outpouring of palpable love and appreciation for this legendary figure.
As a paradigm of Chesed, the Rebbetzin’s hallmarks were her pioneering work in kiruv as she guided tens of thousands of Jews back to Hashem and a Torah life through her weekly parsha classes at the Hineni organization that she founded in 1973. It was there that she posited herself in the forefront of the battle against the spiritual Holocaust which was claiming staggering numbers of Jews through rampant assimilation, intermarriage and alienation.
Known the world over for her love of every Jew, she drew her strength, compassion and indefatigable energy from her experiences as a young child in Hitler’s Europe when she and her family were deported from their home in the Hungarian city of Szeged to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
Imbibing the sagacious wisdom of her father, HaGaon HaRav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, her grandfather and her many holy antecedents, the Rebbetzin made it her life’s mission to disseminate the timeless and eternal teachings of the Torah.
Arriving in America in 1947, she attended the Bais Yaakov schools and quickly learned English. She married her distant cousin HaRav Meshulum HaLevi Jungreis, zt’l. The couple eventually settled in North Woodmere where her husband became the rav at Congregation Ohr Torah.
Over the decades that followed the Rebbetzin committed herself to chinuch, working in camps and schools. In 1973, she held a historic rally for strengthening Jewish identity at New York’s Madison Square Garden where she attracted a capacity crowd. It was there that the internationally renowned Hineni movement was founded.
Because of her wide appeal and genuine message of teshuva, she was called upon to speak throughout the United States and Canada. From there, she literally became a globetrotter, speaking on every continent and in isolated communities. Her passionate and warm words ignited the ‘pintele yid’ (the Jewish spark) in each person as she described the inherent beauty of a Torah lifestyle. As such, she attracted followers who were inspired to explore their Jewish identity and return to their roots.
She often spoke in Israel and gave chizuk to the members of the Israel Defense Forces. “Years ago, the army was a very secular institution in Israel, but Rebbetzin Jungreis spoke to them from the heart, teaching these young soldiers about the Torah and the very special role they play in Jewish history. And suddenly, almost miraculously, these young men became Jewish soldiers, who hungered and thirsted for more knowledge about their majestic heritage and faith, ” said Sharon Dobuler Katz, a long time friend of Rebbetzin Jungreis.
Of the notable and celebrated personalities that recognized Rebbetzin Jungreis’ extraordinary accomplishments were the late Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin a”h and President George W. Bush who asked the Rebbetzin to accompany him to Yerushalayim for the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the State of Israel in 2008. She also was invited to address the Republican National Convention in 2004 where her words touched hundreds of thousands watching on television.
Prior to the advent of the internet, the Rebbetzin’s Torah classes would be broadcast on television and she was a regular guest on major radio programs and a requested speaker on college campuses, US army bases and prisons.
Her regular column in The Jewish Press, known as “The Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint” is the only longest running one in the publication as it marks its 50th anniversary. Its popularity increased by leaps and bounds over the years and it was in this venue that she began responding to letters from people who were beset with numerous problems.
“The Rebbetzin’s response to her readers were always so thoughtful and compassionate. She based everything she said in the wisdom of the Torah. She would always say that the answer to all of our dilemmas can be found in the very first place that the Torah addressed these issues. Of the Torah, her mantra was, ‘Turn the pages, turn the pages, everything is in it,” said Menucha Koslovsky, a long time reader of the Jewish Press.
The Rebbetzin devoted a great deal of her time actively working on making shidduchim for people and is responsible today for thousands of Jewish children born to those couples whose matches she made.
Rebbetzin Jungreis also authored several best-selling books including “The Jewish Soul On Fire”, “The Committed Life”, and “The Committed Marriage”, all of which have been translated in many languages with millions of volumes disseminated in every corner of the globe. Her latest book – “Life Is A Test” was widely acclaimed as one of the 10 best Jewish inspiration books of all time.
Among those delivering hespedim at the levaya were the Rebbetzin’s two brothers, HaRav Yaakov Jungreis and HaRav Yonason Jungreis. “The Rebbetzin was born on the first seder night of Pesach,” said Rabbi Yaakov Jungreis. “That was a sign of the work that she would do for Klall Yisroel; helping each of us extricate ourselves from our own personal Mitzrayim,” he added.
“Her entire life was about giving to others; davening for others and opening her heart, her home to everyone,” said Harav Yonason Jungreis.
Also addressing the levaya attendees were the Rebbetzin’s sons, Rabbi Yisroel Jungreis, Rabbi Osher Jungreis, her sons-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin and Mendy Wolff; her eldest male grandchildren including Yosef Dov Gertzulin, Moshe Nosson Wolff, Yaakov Jungreis and Avraham Jungreis.
“On her last day, we were able to gather a minyan for mincha and we davened in te Rebbetzin’s room at the hospital. She hung on for as long as she could and then we said goodbye,” said Rabbi Osher Jungreis as his voice cracked with palpable emotion.
“When a queen walks into a room she needs a crown so everyone should know she is a queen,” said Rabbi Osher. “My mother needed no crown. When she walked into a room everyone knew: there is royalty, there is a regal person.”
“When it came to the rebbetzin, you just had to say “The Rebbetzin,” remarked Rabbi Jungreis. “There was only one rebbetzin. You say “The Rebbetzin” and everyone knows who you are referring to.”
With tears running down his face, the Rebbetzin’s eldest son, Rabbi Yisroel said, “Eema, you are now going to Shamayim and you will be with Abba, Zeide and Bubbe but you will always be with us. You are not only our mother but the spiritual mother of thousands.”
He recalled the Rebbetzin’s visits to his home every year on Hoshanna Rabba, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. “She was a queen in our home and we delighted in having her with us every moment.”
Her son-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin recalled, “The Rebbetzin always considered her sons-in-law like her own sons and she used to call me ‘Shloimalah’. He related a story that illustrated the Rebbetzin’s devotion to her family even throughout her devastating illness. “Last year when my wife Chaya Sora was undergoing several very serious eye surgeries, we tried to shield the Rebbetzin from this as we knew she was very ill, but as we came out of the hospital after the surgery, there she was with hot coffee and muffins.”
“My home radiated on Shabbos when my mother-in-law would sit at our Shabbos table,” said Mendy Wolff. “She came every week until she could no longer come because she was too ill,” he added.
Her family spoke of her infinite love and devotion to them and the paramount lessons that she taught them.
One of her grandsons spoke of his own son who was named for his grandfather, Meshulum. “We learned that my son Meshulum was not staying in his seat on the school bus. When we told Bubba (as the Rebbetzin was called) of what was happening, she gently spoke to Meshulum and reminded him that he was named after a tzaddik and his behavior had to reflect that. After that he did not get out of his seat again.”
Her kitchen was bedecked in pictures of all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they were the beloved apples of her eye.
In an interview with the Vois Es Nais web site, Mrs. Naomi Klass Mauer, the publisher of the Jewish Press described Rebbetzin Jungreis as “an exemplar of faith.”
“When she went to army bases she spoke right from the heart and she would have grown men, soldiers, crying,” said Mrs. Mauer. “She touched the core that exists in every Jewish neshama. As Rebbetzin Kanievsky said to her when she was alive, ‘I am the Rebbetzin of Bnei Brak but you are the rebbetzin of the world.’”