Esther Jungreis, who died on Tuesday at the age of 80, was an Orthodox Jewish outreach pioneer who famously crusaded against secularism, liberalism, and the assimilation of the American Jewish community, a phenomenon she called “spiritual genocide.”
She led mass revivals across the globe throughout the ’70s and ’80s—spectacles where thousands of young Jews sang and prayed together as she held forth with her message. She published books, pamphlets, and a decades-long weekly column in The Jewish Press in an effort to articulate the purpose of Jewish tradition in modern America. Her softly demanding Hungarian-accented English is already the stuff of legend.
In 1973 she founded Hineni, an organization that brought “fallen Jews back to a fundamental faith.” The New York Times would later dub her the “Jewish Billy Graham.” She stood at the head of the Baal Teshuvah movement, a “return to Judaism” campaign set amid a countercultural moment that witnessed both a larger American religious awakening as well as an ascension of ethnic pride. It is a phenomenon that continues to puzzle observers who have never really figured out what to make of people who reject their autonomy in favor of a relatively unforgiving and wholly totalizing system of obligation (especially, as it were, women). Jungreis called on Jews to testify as Moses did (“Here I am”), and to accept the unpalatable idea that they are unique, special, chosen, and obligated to live a life dedicated to God’s commandments. In her last article for The Jewish Press, published a week before she died, Jungreis wrote that she was afraid of her own people “who have forgotten who we are.”
Our history is constant replay—again and again tragedies befall us, yet we refuse to comprehend. If only we were willing to understand. But no matter how unbearable our pain, how agonizing our suffering, we continue to reject it. Every day a Bas Kol, a Heavenly Voice, calls us, but we choose to remain deaf. We have shed our priestly garments and no longer recognize ourselves. Time and again G-d sends His prophets to remind us that our destiny is different from that of other nations, that our very existence is directly linked to our adherence to G-d’s commandments. Hashem has guaranteed our eternity, for we, the Jewish people, have been chosen to be His witnesses. Tragically, though, we fail to see the glory of our calling, and that is the painful reality of our long, tormented exile.
Equally important as Jungreis’s outreach work was her “in-reach” work. It is something too often ignored in the schema of her self-narrative—a Holocaust survivor blessed with an eloquence and charisma to confront American Jews, to transform them in the hope of staving off a spiritual genocide at the hands of assimilation. Overcome with the near-impossible challenge of turning back the tide of secularism, Jungreis felt she could do nothing but step onto the stage and, in doing so, she transformed Orthodox Judaism as well.
Jungreis inspired a generation of Orthodox women to pursue careers in religious activism and outreach. In a 2012 post on her popular blog, Rivka Malka Perlman, one such spiritual leader, posed the question: “Can Jewish women be public figures?” As an Orthodox mother of eight children, she takes seriously the tradition that the “glory of women” is supposed to lie in their “innerness,” their “modesty,” and their domestic life. She writes:
So if modesty is women’s most primary quality, I wondered if I was messing with how I’m supposed to be, by stepping out—by being so public. And I do believe that my primary work is in my home. So how do I make sense of it? I also have some awesome friends who share similar qualities as me. (I lovingly call it—a big mouth—in all the best ways.) Outgoing, strong women who have a lot to say and have big dreams. We struggle sometimes with putting it all together – the contrast between the image of the soft spoken nurturer and the reality of this dancing fire inside of us that doesn’t let us sit still.
The title of her post is: “Can Jewish women be public figures? An Epilogue to the Esther Jungreis Post.”
“The Rebbetzin,” as Jungreis was called, never cared much for the debate about women rabbis. Indeed, she plainly thought the whole thing was stupid. Women, in her mind, did not need the title to act as spiritual leaders or to achieve a kind of authoritative egalitarianism. “The entire corpus of Jewish writings bears eloquent testimony to the elevated position which the Jewish woman has always enjoyed,” she wrote in a 1973 pamphlet titled Women’s Lib: A Jewish View, which she passed out at her rallies as “Jewish Soul Food.”
[T]he feminist leaders of today have created a false image of the Jewish woman; an image which reflects their own insecurities as well as their colossal ignorance. Basing their assertions on half-truths, on distortion of fact, and on the perversion of actual intent they audaciously assert that the sages viewed women with contempt and disdain.
For Jungreis, “it is she who has been given the awesome responsibility of transmitting her heritage to her offspring.” Levying a critique similar to those who, more-recently, advocated for paid-family leave, Jungreis issued a challenge:
[T]o those feminist friends who mock this ‘slave mentality’ I ask: Is caring for children slavery? Is hassling in the world of business freedom? […] The American emphasis on separatism, independence, and individuality [has resulted in] the new folk hero, the ‘anti-mother,’ a product of Pavlovian conditioning, doomed to existential angst… College graduates are conditioned to equate achievement with financial remuneration, and therefore motherhood, which is a non-salaried position can accord one no status. The young housewife is led to believe that motherhood stifles all creative instincts and dooms one to bovine passivity.
“The Jewish view,” which Jungreis asserted, was that parenthood “need not be incompatible with a career outside the home… Activism and homemaking can be compatible. It is only in a society where bitter rivalry between the sexes is condoned and even encouraged that this schism exists.” She could not figure out what secular America could offer Jewish women.
Jungreis, encouraged by her father and her husband (both rabbis), and compelled by the Jewish souls she saw “on fire,” understood her own public presence as something not merely authorized by her tradition, but as something sanctified by it, which she outlined in The Jewish Soul on Fire, her first book, published in 1982. She was celebrated for “stepping out,” as Perlman might put it. Jungreis was a blazing model of the type of engaged, worldly feminism that would produce an avenue of spiritual leadership for women within the Orthodox community.
Mission work, scholars have noted, has long been the venue for theological ingenuity and religious innovation. In order to reach out, one must, after all, at least use a language and adopt a discourse that potential recruits might understand. For Orthodox women, “outreach” has held a similar promise. Eschewing the title “Rabbi,” Orthodox women have, over the past half century, begun to serve as nothing-short of full clergy—often as well educated (if not more so) than their husbands and increasingly professionalized. Their outposts—from the Chabad House to the thriving sector of hundreds of organization under the banner of the Association for Jewish Outreach Professional—are not just for the Jewish masses, they are also outlets “for the dancing fire inside.”
Jungreis would say that there is nothing new to see here. Women, for her, have always taken the role of spiritual leadership within Jewish tradition. “Rebbetzin,” she might say, was all the title she ever needed. That perspective, though, diminishes the impact that Jungreis made on the Jewish landscape, one her presence—on stage, on paper, and, “immodestly” on full display—irrevocably altered forever.
Matthew Williams is a PhD Candidate at Stanford University in History & Education. His dissertation is a history of Orthodox Outreach in postwar America.