TORONTO — Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis laments modern-day plagues ranging from cellphones to Europe being “taken over by the Muslim world,” but the petite, soft-voiced, charismatic author and advice columnist insists she is an optimist.
In a post-lecture interview at Thornhill’s Chabad Flamingo March 10, the rebbetzin, as she is often called, said that, while she is “a realist,” she wouldn’t do what she does if she weren’t an optimist, too.
Jungreis, who has lectured everywhere from Europe to Russia and South Africa to the Philippines, told The CJN, “I do believe that people can be reached.
“I believe in the Jewish neshamah that survived every tribulation.”
A child survivor of the Holocaust, Jungreis moved to New York with her family at age 12. Her father was the scion of a Hungarian rabbinic dynasty that was decimated during the war. She likens today’s situation to prewar Germany and sees her role as that of an alarm clock, telling people to “wake up.”
Her lecture at Chabad was titled “Life is a Test,” the same title as her 2006 book. She has written five books in total, and is working on a sixth. A longtime columnist for the Jewish Press, an Orthodox weekly, Jungreis is also the founder of Hineni, a New York-based outreach organization.
The rebbetzin is still dealing with the after-effects of her own personal test – a fall last Pesach in San Diego that resulted in four fractures, major surgery and subsequent rehab.
She has resumed her work, and now walks with a cane, which she used to effect at the beginning of her hour-long talk, raising it in the air to bless the audience with health and “Yiddishe naches.”
Following her lecture, she spent more than an hour signing books, offering blessings, and talking to many of the 500 audience members.
The rebbetzin told the crowd of the “message from HaShem” that she inferred from non-Jewish hospital staff in San Diego, who encouraged her to “take one more step,” and called her a “ballerina.”
Jungreis looked for meaning in the word, remembering that ballerinas “spin, and fall down, but they stand up, and they go on tippy toes.”
As well, she thought of the Hebrew sound-alike ba’al rina, meaning “master of joy. “You have to be joyous. God is giving you another day.”
Coy about her age, admitting only to being “not 40 years old any more,” Jungreis briefly raised the question of retirement, vowing “Never, children.
“Am I tired?” she asked. “Sometimes, of course.
“Why do I go? Because I love my people,” she said. As well, the generation of Holocaust survivors is “quickly disappearing, and those who are here are mostly ill or infirm.”
Jungreis has a dual message – her wake-up call about the threat to Israel, and her exhortation to “be a Jew.”
“As much as we were sleeping [in prewar Europe], we are sleeping now,” she said. “Do you know of any nation that will come to the defence of Israel? Will any nation go to war on behalf of Israel?… Don’t kid yourself. Don’t be sleeping.”
“We are so busy with our iPhones and our iPods, we don’t have time, we don’t know how to listen.”
As well, she noted, the average Jew never prays. “Officially, we pray three times a day, but religious Jews are a small minority… If you pray, God will listen,” she said, referring to “miracles” in Israel’s history such as the Six-Day War victory in 1967 and creating a “garden” from desert soil. She also commented that Muslims pray five times a day.
Jews have forgotten their heritage, she said. As well, she added, “We have become mean and selfish.”
Her father taught as a child that, “If you learn to smile when you have pain in your heart, you will give strength to others.” In turn, the smile will be returned and enter your heart, she said.
“I know that God will not abandon me,” she told The CJN. “I remember there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I remember that in the desert there is always sunshine. But for growth, you need rain and thunderstorms… Life is a journey, and a journey is not always simple.”
As well, she urged her audience to keep Shabbat, if not completely, then in part. She likened the weekly Sabbath to “a piece of gold.”
Individual efforts matter, and every day counts, she said.
In addition to her appearance at Chabad Flamingo, Rebbetzin Jungreis spoke at Associated Hebrew Schools and returned to the shul the next day to talk to a group of bat mitzvah girls. She will be back in Toronto in the spring to speak at JUMP (Jewish Urban Meeting Place).