With her thin figure, coiffed blond hair and chic knee-high boots, 40-year-old Esther Jungreis doesn’t look much like “the Jewish Billy Graham” (a description she winces at).
But the Hungarian-born rebbetzin, so called because her husband is an Orthodox rabbi, has embarked on a religious mission no less passionate than that of the Southern evangelist. “People must turn away from neon gods,” Jungreis says in her little-girl, Zsa Zsa Gabor-accented voice. “The pursuit of happiness is not around the corner in Miami or Las Vegas.”
Her message, “Hineni,” is emblazoned on a medallion she wears. It means “Here I am,” the words Abraham spoke when God called him. It is also the name of a Jewish revivalist movement Jungreis founded four years ago. Her group claims a following of 17,000 with offices in Israel, South Africa, Los Angeles, Miami and Brooklyn.
Jungreis pleads her case in arenas like New York’s Madison Square Garden—just as Billy Graham does. But she objects to any comparison on theological grounds. “He wants to convert people,” she says, “and we are not interested in that. We just ask that Jews look within their souls and find their roots by discovering the Torah.” Onstage, Jungreis’ voice goes from wail to near sob. “To be a Jew is the greatest privilege,” she implores. “To be unaware of it is the greatest catastrophe—spiritual genocide.”
Calling those who ignore their heritage “Jewish amnesiacs,” Jungreis turns biblical teachings into contemporary advice. “Young Jews complain that we are too pragmatic and don’t speak about God the way their Christian friends do,” she says. “Any movement that comes along—Sun Myung Moon, Hare Krishna, you name it—Jews are always the first to join.”
A survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Jungreis was born in Széged, Hungary, where her father was chief Orthodox rabbi. The family fled to Switzerland in 1945, eventually moving on to the U.S. At 19 Esther married Theodore Jungreis, a New York rabbi. The couple lives and breathes religion, and their four children carry on the tradition. Chaya Sara, 19, is a Yeshiva (Jewish day school) teacher and engaged to a rabbi; Yisrael, 17, is a rabbinical student; Slava Chana, 13, and Osher Anshil, 10, are both Yeshiva students. “The Bible is their 24-hour guide to living,” their mother says proudly. “They don’t need psychiatrists.”