BERLIN, Jan. 25 (JTA) — The head of security was getting antsy. It was past closing time at the Jewish Community Center here, but the women were not ready to leave. Just one more question to Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was all they wanted. The guard, his arms folded across his chest, raised his eyebrows and waited. In an upstairs meeting room, several young Jewish women sat around a table talking with Jungreis, in town on her second visit from New York in less than a year. The women, participants in Mayan, a program of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, peppered Jungreis with questions. “If we were all present at Sinai, were we also present in Egypt as slaves?” “How do you make a good shidduch?” “Why is everything Eve’s fault? Why didn’t Adam just say no?” “Why do women have to light Shabbat candles?” Jungreis, 67, is more than accustomed to questions. As founder of the Hineni Heritage Center, a 31-year-old Jewish outreach program in New York, she thrives on them as she works to spread her brand of Orthodox Judaism. “I get hundreds of e-mails every couple of days with personal problems from all over the world,” she says. “There is never a tough question. I can answer every one, because all my answers are based on Torah.” Jungreis, a petite, smartly dressed woman who says she needs only four hours of sleep per night, recently went with the executive director of Hineni, Barbara Janov, to Amsterdam, Budapest, Berlin and London, where Jungreis spoke at the annual Jewish Encounter Conference. When she is not teaching Torah at Hineni or writing her weekly column for the Jewish Press newspaper, Jungreis visits Jewish communities around the world. She is the author of several books, many of which have been translated into several languages, and she delivers inspirational talks, including ones about her dramatic survival as a child at Bergen-Belsen. Her main message is that Jews will survive through faith and positive thinking. Once called a “Jewish Billy Graham,” she says that as a woman, “I can reach people a different way than a man. I can touch their hearts; they can let their emotions go.” In Berlin, there were more women than men in the audience of 150 at the Jewish community center. Mayan had raised funds from local Jews and private donors to help sponsor the visit, fulfilling a dream of Tatiana Paradny-Gabriel, 27, one of tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union now living in Germany. “Rebbetzin Jungreis literally saved my life,” says Paradny-Gabriel, a singer who met Jungreis while studying in New York. “I was in a very difficult situation at the time,” she says, without divulging details. “You reach a point where you don’t know why you live and why you are there.” At a low point, she was introduced by friends to Jungreis. “Sometimes she can be very tough, but with time you understand she was right,” Paradny-Gabriel says, explaining that she “came back to my roots” through Jungreis. “I realized I don’t live only for myself, and that is why I brought her here to help the people here.” Despite the connection, it was not easy for Paradny-Gabriel to convince Jungreis to come to Berlin for the first time in 2002. Berlin “is a hard place for me,” Jungreis told JTA. “To hear the German language is hard. My natural reaction is to think, ‘Juedische Schweinhund, achtung, Heil Hitler,’ ”— giving the German for “Jew swine-dog, hail Hitler.” “I lived with it. You can’t shake it so fast,” she says. But Jungreis came back because she saw a need. Wicka Dolburd, 23, director of the Mayan program, says, “A lot of these girls are going back to tradition, and it is important for them to see someone who will give them the courage to continue, even if it is just once a year, or once in their life.” Jungreis’ family has always tried to inspire. After surviving the Holocaust, Jungreis remembers that her father, Rabbi Abraham Jungreis, gathered all the orphans in a displaced-persons camp in Switzerland and made shidduchim, or matches, between the young men and women. Jungreis says it was an expression of the optimism that runs in her family. Though her father wanted to immigrate to Palestine, the family was unable to get the necessary papers. So instead the family moved to the United States in 1947. In 1955, Jungreis married Rabbi Meshulem Jungreis — a distant cousin with the same family name — and together they founded an Orthodox congregation on Long Island. Jungreis, now a rebbetzin, or rabbi’s wife, started doing Jewish outreach work in the early 1970s. Her first Hineni lecture was held at Madison Square Garden before 18,000 people on Nov. 8, 1973. The Jungreis’ two sons and two daughters now are all either rabbis or rebbetzins — and all are involved with Hineni. A big part of the Jungreis’ work is matchmaking. So how does one make a good shidduch? “Everyone has a soulmate, but people don’t know how to look,” Jungreis says. Instead of seeking someone with “deep pockets,” seek a mate with “compassion, modesty and lovingkindness.” Even on his deathbed, Jungreis’ late husband was making matches. “Lying in his hospital bed, he opened his eyes and said, ‘Let’s talk the truth. See that Jewish boy, the doctor,’ ” Jungreis recalls. “I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. He wanted to gather one more mitzvah before he met his maker.” Jungreis described her trip back to Germany as triumphant. “And at the end of the day, we have to remember that we are here, and to be here in Berlin is another miracle,” she told the group at the community center. “I walked through the snows of Germany from Bergen-Belsen, and here I am, speaking about Torah and Judaism in Germany.” After her talk, Jungreis signed copies of her books in English and Hebrew; German editions will come out soon. Rachel Maier, 60, who waited patiently in line for a book and a blessing from the rebbetzin, said she was so moved that she “had to fight with my tears” during the talk. Though it was getting late, Jungreis made time for one more question at the Berlin event as the guard paced impatiently. “What about people who lost their faith after communism — what do they have to do to keep their faith?” someone asked. “Even the most hardened Jew is a Jew,” Jungreis said. “Don’t give up.”
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.