How many people realize that one of the largest kiruv organizations in the world was founded by and continues to be run by a woman?
That woman is Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis and the organization she started in 1970, Hineni, is known worldwide and has brought countless people from all walks of life back to Yiddishkeit. In fact, when Rebbetzin Jungreis visited Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky a number of years ago, Rebbetzin Kanievsky told her, “I may be the Rebbetzin of Bnei Brak, but you are the Rebbetzin of the world.”
* * * * *
I can still remember the weekend, over 50 years ago at the Pioneer Country Club in upstate New York, when my parents met Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi and Esther Jungreis. We were sitting together in the lobby and the rabbi turned to my father and said, “The Jewish Press needs an advice column by a woman.”
“It sounds like a good idea, but who would write it?” my dad asked.
“My wife,” Rabbi Jungreis responded instantaneously. “She’s very good at giving advice.”
And so began Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint, the longest running column in the history of The Jewish Press and still going strong. Letters come to the Rebbetzin from readers all over the world who hope to see their questions answered in the paper.
“I wanted the word ‘rebbetzin’ to be part of the column’s title,” says Rebbetzin Jungreis, “because I wanted young women to realize what a noble position it is to be a rabbi’s wife.”
Her connection to the paper, she tells me, is deeply personal: “Despite many offers from other periodicals, I have only to picture your holy father and your very special mother, whom I loved, to know why I continue to write for The Jewish Press.”
* * * * *
Esther Jungreis’s father, Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, was descended from a long line of rabbanim and the Jungreis name was well known throughout Hungary. Esther was born in Szeged, at the time the second largest city in Hungary and home to that country’s largest Reform community. It was into that milieu that Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis had come, with his long black beard and long black coat, to build an Orthodox shul.
“He built that shul and welcomed everyone,” says Rebbetzin Jungreis. “It mattered not who they were or how committed they were to Judaism, everyone felt welcome in his shul.”
During World War II, Szeged was the collection point for slave labor. Young Jewish men were sent out of the country to help the Nazi war effort. Rav Jungreis went to see those boys every day and would sing a song, like a prayer in Yiddish, with messages for them from their parents, and distribute honey cookies his wife, Rebbetzin Miriam, had made. He would take along young Esther, who carried medicine sewn into the hem of her coat to be distributed as needed.
At that time the Jungreis family was hiding a pregnant woman, and when her time came to give birth it was Rebbetzin Miriam who performed the delivery and kept the baby alive.
When deportation came, the Jungreis family was sent to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. But the woman and her baby were sent to a camp in Vienna, where Esther’s maternal grandfather, Rav Tzvi Hirsh HaCohen, was the rav. He protected her, and when the war was nearly over and some people were making it out to Switzerland, he gave up his seat on a transport for her and her baby. Rav Tzvi was eventually murdered but that little boy survived and today is the well-known Tzelemer Rav.