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Conversation with Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The timeless message of Torah in the Internet Age

By Cindy Mindell

 

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was born in Szeged, Hungary in 1936 and emigrated to the U.S. after surviving Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Determined to devote her life to fighting the “spiritual Holocaust” among Jews in the U.S. and around the world, “the Rebbetzin,” as she is known, founded Hineni Heritage Center in 1973, an international Jewish outreach movement with centers in New York and Jerusalem. Through a broad range of educational programs, the organization aims to reconnect a people with its creator, identity, and obligations. “Every time a Jew is apathetic, he gives Hitler life,” Jungreis said about her inspiration to at the time of Hineni’s founding. “Every time a Jew does a mitzvah, he triumphs over Hitler.”

Jungreis writes a weekly column for The Jewish Press, the largest Anglo-Jewish paper in the world, teaches Torah on TV and over the Internet, and has authored four bestselling books: The Jewish Soul on Fire: The Committed Life (HarperOne, 1999), The Committed Marriage (HarperOne, 2004), Life Is a Test (Mesorah Publications Ltd., 2006), and Footsteps: Perspectives for Daily Life (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012). The Rebbetzin lectures across the globe, has been featured in numerous publications, and has been given formal recognition for her accomplishments by major religious and civic organizations in the U.S. and Israel.

Jungreis will present “The Jewish Soul on Fire” on Tuesday, Mar. 4 at Fairfield University. She spoke with the Ledger about the timeless message of Torah in the Internet Age.

 

Q: Your life and message are Torah-based, but you address non-Jewish audiences as well. How do you connect with those audiences?

A: I recently spoke in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. In one presentation, there were 5,000 people. It was a Jewish gathering but there were some non-Jewish people as well. A church leader came up to me afterwards and said, “Rebbetzin, we’d like you to come back and address all people of the church. We need to make atonement for the Holocaust.” So I’m going back.

I have spoken to the American Army, Air Force, and Navy, where there is not too much Jewish population. I don’t speak differently: we are all children of God. I do bring up Jewish issues sometimes, as the Torah holds universal for everyone.

I was in San Diego over Pesach last year and fell and broke my hip. I was the only Jew in the hospital. Even though it was a very tough time, I thought, ‘You have an opportunity to share your wisdom with fellow patients.’ After all, so many people have a belief in God and, no matter what faith, we have some things in common: the 10 Commandments, the words Amen and Hallelujah, the Prophets. And who gave these to the world? The Jews. Even though I’m not political and not a member of a political party, I gave the benediction at the Republican National Convention when Pres. George Bush received the nomination. There were 36,000 people and very few Jews.

What we all have in common is a search for the meaning of life, and to make our lives meaningful. The current generation is one with no principles. They tell me, “God wants me to be happy?” I say, “Who are you kidding?” Where in the Torah does it say that God wants us to be “happy?” Why is there no commandment, “Thou shalt be happy?” Because, as humans, we can decide that what makes us happy are things that are not good for us or for society: drugs, prostitution, robbing a bank, etc. I heard that crazy woman [Miranda Barbour] interviewed after she killed 22 people. She said she’s a serial killer because that makes her happy.

We have to find our way, and we can do that through God.

 

Q: What’s the biggest challenge to following the way of God?

A: In the Garden of Eden, what does it mean that Adam and Eve are not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? It’s knowledge of evil and good, moral and immoral. That isn’t determined by you or me, but by God, and it’s about living a life of morality, justice, truth, honesty, and integrity.

Today, everything has to be cool. You have to be cool. It’s not cool to have integrity, respect, and morality. But it’s cool to curse and kill. Who are the role models? Celebrities. What are celebrities’ morals? I talk about honesty, truth, and integrity, principles that people want to hear about.

The most powerful and life-changing influence on life today is the Internet – technology in general, really. Every day brings a new technological development. The possibilities are limitless, and we have come to believe that we are limitless. We have become arrogant and pompous. Arrogance and pomposity breed chutzpah. And when chutzpah and technology meet, it is a potentially deadly combination. The minds of an entire generation have been taken over by technology and they don’t think. When everyone is engrossed in emailing and texting and watching videos and movies and television shows on their phones and other hand-held devices, it creates fertile ground for family breakdown and general disregard for others and their needs. We no longer have to talk; we no longer have to listen; we no longer have to respond; we check our messages and if we don’t like them, we move on.

With a push of a finger, we can wipe out voices and words we do not want to hear. But it doesn’t stop there. Toxic fumes that deaden our sense of judgment – our ability to distinguish between right and wrong, moral and immoral, corrupt and honest, licentiousness and modesty – are just a click or finger-push away, available to anyone of any age. The most depraved acts and lifestyles inundate us and we have sunk so low that we no longer recognize that something is desperately wrong.

 

Q: With technology so intertwined in modern life, what can we do to change the way we and our children use it?

A: We are raising a generation who believes in violence, sex, money, and entitlement, and everything is justified. Children have no values; parents don’t know how to raise them with values. We need to take back the reins, keep children off the computer day and night. They’re addicts and they learn everything online, even how to build bombs. We have to reverse the story. We need to have our children become educated for blessing, Torah, and a belief in God.

What can parents do? Monitor your computer; this applies not only for children but for everyone. Tell your children you will not accept text messages and emails unless they are followed up by live phone calls as well. Do not tolerate insolent behavior. Do not be afraid of being a parent. You must take a stand; if you do, you will earn respect and influence others. We are Torah people and there is only one Law, one way we can follow: Torah. Tell your children you love them, and will love them forever, but you do not love nor will you tolerate behavior that vilifies what we as Jewish people are supposed to represent.

 

Q: This is also an age of attrition from synagogue life and a move toward secularism. How do you get people to consider a life that includes God?

A: We cannot prove to a person that God exists if he doesn’t want to believe that. It’s an exercise in futility. So how do you get to know God? The way I do it is I always invite people to come and study God’s book. You want to know whether He’s there? Study His book. If you want to study an artist like Van Gogh and understand him, you have to go to the museum and study his paintings. Would you like to understand music? Don’t just talk about it; go to a concert and listen. Anything that you would like to master, you have to be exposed to it. If you want to understand God, you have to study his book and everything will fall into place.

But the reason why so many do not study God’s book is that there is a tremendous gap in their lives that they cannot close – the longest gap, the most difficult gap to close, and it’s only nine inches. I’m referring to the gap between your head and your heart. In your heart, every human being knows that God exists because He created us. But in our heads, we don’t want to accept it because we want to be free. We want to live our own lives and wrIte our own program, chart our own course. We want to live unencumbered, without discipline, and to believe in God is to live with a higher discipline. And to some people, that’s difficult. But everything that’s worthwhile in life is difficult. If it’s not difficult, if it’s not a challenge, then it has no meaning, it has no permanence. God is there if you want to find Him. But you have to desire to find Him.

Very often people ask me, “Is there such a thing as free will? If God is in control of the world and if there are no coincidences, if everything comes from Him, then what am I? A puppet. Why should I be held culpable?” As the Gemara says, Hakol b’yadei shamayim – “Everything is in the hands of God” – chutz m’yiras shamayim – “except for the fear of heaven.”

Whether you are short or tall, wise or dull, healthy or ill, is determined in the heavens above. You have no choice in it. The family that you are born into – you have no choice in that. Before you were born, you didn’t have the opportunity to go shopping and say, “God, this is the mother I want and this is the father I want.” God just propelled you onto this planet, placed you into the body of this woman, and that’s it. You had no choice about it. So some people are born into dysfunctional families, some people are born into families that are very solid. So is there a choice? Some people are born handicapped, and some people are born brilliant. Is there a choice? Not in that. But there is a choice in that which really makes a difference. It doesn’t matter whether you were born this way or that way, or in which family. The only thing which matters, which counts, is your belief in God.

 

Bennett Lecture in Judaic Studies: “The Jewish Soul on Fire” with Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis; Tuesday, Mar. 4, 7:30 p.m., Fairfield University, Dolan School of Business Dining Room, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield. Admission to the lecture is free; reservations are requested. Call (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066 or email bennettcenter@fairfield.edu.

 

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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