It is 30 years this month since I spoke in Madison Square Garden and had the zchus (merit) to
launch Hineni, our Kiruv-Outreach organization. In those days, the Jewish world was very different. Kiruv – outreach was virtually unknown, so I knew that something different had to be done to awaken our people. Thus the idea of Madison Square Garden for a tshuva gathering was born. Many in the Orthodox community greeted my efforts with skepticism – their comments running the gamut from ”Who needs those crazies?” to ”Even if you get them to come back, they won’t last,” and the Conservative and Reform camps regarded my work with, at best, suspicion, if not with outright hostility, saying, ”She’s dangerous; she’s too fanatic! She’ll make them Orthodox.” But Baruch Hashem, armed with brochos – blessings of the Gedolei haDor – the Torah leaders of our generation, we overcame all stumbling blocks and filled the Garden – SRO, twice.
It was an incredible night, one that will never be forgotten by those who were present. As the walls of the Garden resonated with ”Shema Yisroel,” sanctity permeated the air, and the ba’al tshuva movement was launched.
Following that Madison Square Garden happening, we held similar events in every major city
throughout the United States, and the world, and the miracle occurred – young people, whose parents had never taught them the meaning of Judaism embraced their ancient faith. But it was not only the young who made this discovery – men and women of all ages joined us and embarked upon the path of tshuva – return. It was awesome to behold Jews in every state, on every continent, awakening to their heritage.
Baruch Hashem, since those days, Hineni has grown into an international movement and I have had the privilege of getting to know our people near and far, in cities and hamlets – even in remote, out-of-the way places. I have discovered that there is a pintele Yid in even the most alienated, assimilated Jewish heart, a pintele Yid that, in an instant, can be ignited into a mighty flame. Nowadays, very often when I go out to speak, I meet young people who tell me, ”When my grandmother was young, she heard you speak at Madison Square Garden and came back to Torah.” One has to marvel at this awesome miracle that our generation is witnessing – the ba’al tshuva movement.
It’s more than 30 years now, and Baruch Hashem I’m still traveling, and since the publication
of my books, The Committed Life and The Committed Marriage, I find myself more than ever on the road, and every trip has its own story that relates, not only to our people, but to the journey of our Jewish life. For example, this past week, I was scheduled to speak in Seattle, Washington, to say the least, a long way from New York. Our flight was to make a stop- over in Houston and then proceed on to Seattle. To our relief, we were told that we wouldn’t have to deplane, that after a few minutes on the ground, the plane would be on its way.
When we landed in Houston, our flight, like most flights these days, was late and the captain
announced that since a number of passengers had to make connecting flights, the remaining passengers should remain seated to allow them to make a quick dash for it.
No problem for us. We weren’t planning to de-plane anyway. To disembark for just a few minutes was hardly worth-while. Besides, I find that on planes there is a respite from the constant jingle of telephones, so it’s a great place to write or recite tehillim – psalms undisturbed. But all my well laid plans came to naught. Suddenly, we were jarred by a new announcement: ”This aircraft will not proceed to Seattle.” – and that same voice which just a few minutes earlier had asked us to remain seated, now instructed us to proceed to gate ____. ”Please move quickly,” the official sounding voice added, ”because you have only ten minutes to make the flight!”
I couldn’t believe it. Did they think that we were marathon runners? Any of you who know what the Houston Airport is like can sympathize with our predicament. But this was no time to commiserate. As the saying goes, ”It is what it is.” My friend Barbara (who always travels with me) and I started to run, dragging our roll-ons behind us. We arrived at the gate breathless as the last of the passengers were boarding. Two fresh-faced high school girls were on line directly in front of us, calmly eating ice cream cones.
”Gosh, you’re out of breath. You must have been running,” one of them volunteered.
”How did you guess?” I quipped, ”And we’re not your age either.”
Laughing, she said, ”Well, you’ll have a good time in Seattle. It’s a fun place to be. There’s always lots going on there. Where will you be staying?”
”As a matter of fact,” I answered, ”We won’t be staying anywhere, because we are catching the ‘red eye’ back to New York tonight.”
”Wow, I can’t believe that – all in one day? What will you be doing in Seattle for those few hours,” she went on to ask.
I wondered to myself whether I should end the conversation and simply tell her that we had business to attend to, or whether I should share with her the purpose of my visit in a language that she would understand. I chose the latter course.
”I’ll be preaching,” I responded.
”Preaching! Oh, that’s cool! What will you be preaching on?”
”The Word of G-d.”
”Oh, that’s cool!” she repeated excitedly, ”We’re just coming from a women’s gathering and we were singing hymns to G-d all the time.”
”I’m Jewish,” I said, and then I added, ”It is written that our entire Torah, our Bible, is a song.”
”A song,” she repeated. ”That’s the most beautiful thing I ever heard. The Bible – A Song. I’ll
have to remember that. And then, as if on second thought, she said, ”but if you’re Jewish, who will save you?”
”G-d Himself saves me. He saved me in the past; He saves me in the present, and He will save me in the future.”
She had difficulty absorbing my words, and she repeated once again, ”But who will save you?” She did not mention the Christian savior, but I understood exactly what she was referring to.
”As I told you,” I repeated, ”G-d saves me.”
Her eyes conveyed that she didn’t quite get it, so I explained that our entire nation stood at Sinai and G-d spoke to us directly, and because of that, we do not need any intermediaries. We pray directly to G-d; we confess directly to Him, and we ask for His direct guidance and blessing.”
She looked at me, digesting what I had just told her, and then she exclaimed, ”Wow, that’s real cool!” And I was reminded of the passage, ”For the Torah is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples who will hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation. For which is a great nation that has a G-d, who is so close to it as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call upon Him”’ (Deuteronomy 4:6).
We need never hesitate to proclaim who we are, what we are, and what we stand for. Indeed, who is so close to HaShem, as we? We who stood at Sinai and heard His voice. What a privilege and what a tragedy not to be aware of it.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis