I couldn’t put it down; I had to keep reading the new biography, The Rebbetzin: The Story of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis – Her Life, Her Vision, Her Legacy. Rabbi Nachman Seltzer, an expert story weaver, applied his talent to create a masterpiece in this biography of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, our modern-day Queen Esther.
He recounts miraculous events and incredible stories that for the Rebbetzin were just part of a day’s work. He includes the history of her ancestors, who also experienced miraculous stories. When you finish reading this book, you feel like you had the privilege of meeting the Rebbetzin and learning from her. Her trademark charisma and magic live in the pages and beckon you to be a part of her passionate mission to bring all our Jewish brothers and sisters to a love of Torah and mitzvos, to bring Mashiach.
Reading this biography is like reading a suspenseful novel, with the added benefit that it feeds your neshamah with such uplifting messages and ideas. This book will light up your life just as the Rebbetzin lit a fire of love of Torah and mitzvos in the lives of so many. The Rebbetzin’s total focus on bringing Hashem into the world with so much love captivates the reader and raises him to new heights.
Rabbi Seltzer begins his book with a quick overview of the Rebbetzin’s life. She was nifteres in 2016 at the age of 80. She was the founder of Hineni and a pioneer of the worldwide kiruv movement. She was a columnist for The Jewish Press, author of many books, a famous speaker, Torah teacher, shadchan, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. “She was one of the most fascinating, charismatic, and spiritually inspiring individuals in recent history.”
The book is divided by time periods and events in the Rebbetzin’s life. The first part, from 1972 to 1974, takes the reader on the magical journey of how Hineni was formed, and the Rebbetzin’s ascent to stardom, where she mesmerized an audience of thousands at Madison Square Garden and became known as the “Jewish Billy Graham.” This part of the book begins with photos and descriptions of Rebbetzin Jungreis meeting with threee prime ministers of Israel: Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It starts with her visit in Israel with Prime Minister Begin, who shared his most personal prayer with her: “I beg Hashem, and I tell Him, “This is my greatest t’filah and my greatest wish. Really, it’s the only thing I ask of You – please, please do not remove the spirit of Your holiness from me.”
During this visit and many subsequent visits to Israel, she spoke at army bases, inspiring and encouraging soldiers in the IDF. The author puts us into her point of view in every momentous occasion. That first day that she was scheduled to speak at the Israeli army base, the soldiers were expecting a singer. They were disappointed when they realized that she wasn’t going to sing, but it’s amazing how she went on to capture the audience with her passion for Torah.
On this first trip, she also visited the Ramle Prison for Women. The description of her speech there and the effect she had on the prisoners is wonderful to read. She spoke to them about doing t’shuvah and Hashem loving them. One girl screamed that no one would ever give them a second chance. The Rebbetzin responded with the story or Reish Lakish, a robber who did t’shuvah and became a great Torah scholar. This girl ended up giving the Rebbetzin a note for the Kosel that said, “Hashem, please forgive me.”
Next, the book describes how Hineni was born and then the Rebbetzin’s dream to speak in Madison Square Garden so she could reach more Jewish hearts. The story behind this momentous occasion is fascinating. The idea began at her son’s bar mitzvah. You have to read the whole buildup to the event, because the suspense is incredible. The description is so vivid that readers feel like they are on stage with the Rebbetzin facing that immense crowd.
Before the event started, there were so many people trying to enter Madison Square Garden that the manager stopped letting people in. The whole scene where she confronts the manager is a drama in itself. She couldn’t turn away Jews who wanted to learn about their heritage. She first asked the manager if he was a religious man. He said he was. Then she threw her ammunition: “Surely you know that we the Jewish people are bound by a promise to keep the Commandments and become a blessing to all of mankind.”
She explained that every single person standing outside of Madison Square Garden needed to be allowed in. She implored him. “I promise you that you will share in our blessing. One day, when you stand before G-d’s throne, you will tell this story and receive your reward.”
Amazingly, he let them in. You can see in a photograph of the crowd depicted in the book that there were so many thousands of people in Madison Square Garden that the overflow had to sit on the floor.
Before every speech, she would say the two lines we say that introduce the Sh’moneh Esrei, “Hashem open my lips.”
The author begins the chapter with this beautiful description:
“As she walked onto the darkened stage and stepped over to the microphone, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis knew that her life would never be the same again – and that she had been born to follow in the illustrious footsteps of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Then the spotlight hit her and she was blinded. For a millisecond she froze, and then her nervousness disappeared and she started to speak. It was as if an angel had descended to earth from heaven – such was the beauty and power of her words.”
Nachman Seltzer captures the scene:
“The Rebbetzin stood on stage and said, ‘You are a Jew. You have created civilizations. You have been a citizen of every nation. You have given birth to every ideal that has shaped mankind. Justice, peace, love, and the innate dignity of man have all had their genesis in your Torah. But above all, you have been given the unique mission of proclaiming the oneness of G-d!’”
The author describes the electricity that coursed through the auditorium. She led everyone in the recitation of the first line of Sh’ma. The crowd erupted with spontaneous applause, while the singers lifted their voices and sang the popular Jewish song at that time, “Sh’ma Yisrael.” The audience sang along. The applause went on and on. “It was more than a speech. It was a manifest, a mandate, a passing of the torch. It was the epitome of storytelling, the epitome of education, of chinuch and mesorah.”
She was invited to deliver a religious invocation at the Republican National Convention for George W. Bush’s second term as president. He was so impressed with her, he asked her to be part of a seven-person delegation to represent him in Israel. She also participated in the presidential Chanukah party.
While flying over Germany in the airplane of the President of the United States, Air Force One, Rebbetzin Jungreis said, “When I was child, with shaven head and hot tears rolling down my cheeks, dressed in rags and covered in lice, I didn’t dream that I would survive, never mind fly over Germany in the President’s plane while coming back from Jerusalem!”
In addition to the descriptions of the Rebbetzin’s incredible speaking events, the book is filled with beautiful tributes the author collected from some of the many people that Rebbetzin Jungreis brought to a Torah lifestyle through her speeches, her column, her books, and her television and radio show. All the people who shared their experiences described their personal relationships with her and how she changed their lives and became a part of their lives. She was the bubby and mother to so many. There is the coolest ever bris milah story involving the Rebbetzin and Rabbi Paysach Krohn. I won’t give it away. You have to read it in the book.
Her brachos brought so much joy. Even when she was ill and suffering her last illness, a frum nurse asked her for a brachah that she should become a kallah. The Rebbetzin gladly offered her the brachah and, at the time of the Rebbetzin’s shloshim, this nurse became a kallah.
Nachman Seltzer’s words in his afterword sum up what he learned about this unique Jewish woman: “From Rav Moshe Feinstein to the Satmar Rebbe, from Rav Henkin to Rav Soloveitchik, all agreed and stated that Rebbetzin Jungreis should be encouraged and endorsed and supported.
“They supported her with no controversy.
“From Rav Moshe promising to send his bachurim to help Hineni at Madison Square Garden, to the Satmar Rebbetzin sponsoring a thousand yarmulkes for Israeli soldiers, the Rebbetzin proved to be a uniquely unifying source for klal Yisrael – welcomed, revered, and listened to from the magnificent homes of Cape Town in South Africa to the crowded and congested alleyways of Bnei Brak.
“It was a true miracle – but more importantly it was a testimony to the words she repeated so many times:
“‘Everything I did was for the sake of Heaven.’
“And from klal Yisrael’s response to her; it seems that Heaven agreed.”
Here is what Rebbetzin Kanievsky a”h said about Rebbetzin Jungreis: “I might be the Rebbetzin of Bnei Brak, but you, Rebbetzin Jungreis, are the Rebbetzin of the World.”
I highly recommend that you read this wonderful book. The stories and ideas will resonate with you long after you read the last page. You cannot come away from reading this as the same person you were when you started.
May her memory always be a blessing for klal Yisrael and her family.
By Susie Garber