I was in Brazil, speaking to the Jewish community of Sao Paulo, when the sad news of the petira of Irene Klass reached me. Many memories, many scenes, many conversations and experiences flashed through my mind. With Irene’s passing, a whole era – a whole way of thinking, of values, of goals, of idealism – disappeared. Irene had a sense of mission and never allowed politics, petty jealousies or territorial considerations to influence her.
Irene was a visionary, a woman who loved Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael with a passion. She was prepared to climb every mountain to overcome every obstacle for what she knew was our G-d-given heritage and she clung to this goal tenaciously and uncompromisingly.
I first met Irene many, many years ago. I was a newlywed, and my husband, HaRav Meshulem Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, and I were spending the summer at the Pioneer Hotel in the Catskills. I was lecturing and was in charge of shiurim for the day camp. We shared a table in the dining room with Rabbi Sholom Klass, zt”l, and his Rebbetzin, Irene. At that time, Reb Sholom was the editor and publisher of The Brooklyn Daily and he and Irene shared with us their vision of creating a paper to be known as The Jewish Press which would not only report the news, but, more significantly, bring the message of Torah into every Jewish home.
Irene suggested I write a column, and then the discussion came up as to the subject on which the column should focus. My husband immediately suggested that I offer practical advice and guidance. “After all,” he said, “who can do that better than you who were nurtured and taught by the great tzaddik, your father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l?”
Next the question arose as to what the column should be called. Without hesitation, I replied, “If I were to undertake this challenge, I think I would call it “The Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint.” In those days, the title “rebbetzin” – being identified through your husband’s profession – meant you had no identity of your own, and the very title “rebbetzin” connoted that you were who you were only by virtue of your husband’s profession.
“I would like to make the title ‘rebbetzin’ popular and respected,” I said, “so that little girls would aim to become rebbetzins just as they hope to become teachers, nurses or professionals.”
Thus began my relationship with Irene, and with every passing day it grew stronger. She never hesitated to pick up the phone to tell me when she found my article to be particularly good. Her integrity was such that she was always happy to give credit to someone else.
Some years later, I had a vision to start Hineni, a ba’al teshuvah movement that would inspire the Jewish people to say, “Here I am O G-d, ready to do Your bidding, ready to serve You and reach out to our brethren.” In those days, assimilation was rampant and Orthodoxy was ridiculed and looked on as atavistic. I knew I would have to do something extraordinary to reach out to our Jewish community, something that would electrify our people and awaken the “pintele Yid” in them.
To call for such a happening in a synagogue would be futile – young people would simply not come. In those days, Israel Bonds held events in Madison Square Garden at which stars of stage and screen would perform. Often, I mused about how amazing it would be if we could fill the Garden to disseminate Torah and mitzvos. So it was that my vision of awakening and inspiring our nation was born.
Many times I shared my hopes with Irene and she always encouraged me. “What a wonderful idea!” she would say. “Go for it. The Jewish Presswill be there to back you and to help you spread the news.”
To be sure, there were many hurdles to overcome. I didn’t as yet have a viable organization. I had no funds. I was a young rebbetzin with very small children. But my holy father and my esteemed, beloved husband kept telling me, “Uverachticha b’chol asher ta’aseh” – “You need only do it, and the blessing will come from G-d.”
And so it was that, Baruch Hashem, we filled the Garden. The night of the program Irene not only sent a reporter to cover the story, she herself came and insisted on writing up the event. Never was there even a twinge of the “politics” or territorialism that unfortunately marks today’s Jewish scene.
With the help of G-d, that night in the Garden was more than we could have ever anticipated. Thousands were inspired to come back, to explore their roots, to embark upon a voyage of Jewish self-discovery, as the arena resounded with “Shema Yisrael.” On that night, I related the awesome story of our people; I spoke of everything we’d experienced from the genesis of our history. Among the many subjects on which I touched was the silence of the Church and its acquiescence to the annihilation of our people throughout history and during the years of the Holocaust.
As a result, a prominent Catholic priest wrote an inflammatory letter of condemnation to The Jewish Press. Irene asked me if I would like to respond and I immediately accepted the challenge. I wrote a lengthy dissertation documenting the history of the Church vis-a-vis our people throughout the long, painful centuries. The Jewish Press placed the article in its centerfold, and the response was spectacular. Thousands upon thousands of requests for copies flooded the paper and Reb Sholom and Irene published more than 100,000 copies to fill the need.
Irene, I would like to tell you – for I know you are reading this column from the heavens above – that just recently I met with the chief rabbi of the IDF and he told me that for many years now, when teaching the history of our people to the troops, he’s referred to this column.
So, Irene, yasher koach for having had the courage to back me in my stand and for placing that story on your front page as well as in the centerfold.
There is much more that I can write about Reb Sholom and Irene. I could write of the thousands of Jews who’ve told me over the years that The Jewish Press was their first connection to their faith – that it was through The Jewish Pressthat they discovered Torah.
So once again, Reb Sholom and Irene, thank you for having made a difference in our Jewish world. You will never be forgotten, and will always remain in our hearts.
Rest easy, dear friend. Be at peace in the knowledge that your work continues through your dedicated children whose lives are devoted to that which you and Reb Sholom began, May your neshamah have an aliyah and find its repose among the righteous of Israel.Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis