Forceful even when speaking barely above a whisper, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis urged her audience to “be a blessing”; that way, she told them, “you will be blessed.”
Speaking at the Jewish Educational Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls, the 77-year-old speaker, author, and Holocaust survivor recalled her wartime experiences to illustrate a lecture she called “Turning the Negatives into Positives.”
Jungreis, a popular motivational speaker in the Orthodox world, gave the inaugural Mrs. Chaya Newman Memorial Lecture on Feb. 1. Newman, who headed the school 37 years, died in 2012.
The event was originally scheduled for Dec. 2, but was snowed out. On Feb. 1, more than 340 people came — students and parents, staff, alumnae, and local residents.
Opening the program, Rabbi Joseph Oratz, the current principal of Bruriah, said, “Everything I know about Jewish education, I know from Mrs. Newman.” He spoke about how hard it has been to fill her shoes, but said, “I don’t know how she did what she did, but the tone she set continues to thrive in this building.”
Newman’s daughter Shlomis Peikes, an associate principal at the school, recalled her mother’s oft-repeated mantra about the students: “They won’t care about learning unless they know how much we care about them.”
Jungreis took the stage with the support of a cane, necessitated she said by a hip fracture. “But I use my shtekn for my shtick,” she quipped. As part of that shtick, she said how she had been dubbed “the Jewish Billy Graham.” She is the founder of Hineni Heritage Center, a New York-based educational and cultural center that also features her sons and daughters.
In a voice that ranged from tearful whispers to booming quotes, she cited anecdotes from her own life. As the Nazi menace was growing, not knowing if there would be another chance, her parents took the family to visit her grandparents on the far side of Hungary. Her grandfather was a distinguished rabbi — like her father and her late husband, Rabbi Theodore Jungreis (a distant cousin with the same family name). The old man wept as he held her on his lap. When she asked her father why, he pointed to footprints in the snow, and likened them to the imprint of Torah teaching that her zayde was leaving for his descendants.
“Every one of you in this room had a zayde somewhere who made a path for you, asking only one thing — that you stay on the path of Torah,” she said.
The line of those waiting afterward to buy her books and have them signed stretched across the room, and people waited two hours and more to have a chance to exchange a personal word with her. Jungreis stayed until the last book was signed.
Keshet Starr was one of the few women present with no connection to the school; she had come, she said, “because I’ve read the rebbetzin’s books, and I wanted to hear her speak. She was so powerful.”
The event was coordinated by Adina Abramov, the JEC’s chief marketing officer — herself a JEC parent — and Leah Rothstein, marketing assistant and alumnae coordinator — and a Bruriah alumna.
Abramov said of Jungreis, “In this age of hyper-technology and arms’-length communication, the fire in her eyes and care in her voice are like a warm embrace. That’s why I thought she would be so appropriate for the Chaya Newman memorial. Mrs. Newman also had that same grandmotherly appeal and warmth. They were contemporaries and knew each other, two women living in an extremely conservative Orthodox reality who have made a huge difference, to men and women alike, and who successfully touched and enhanced the lives of thousands.”