Speaker Considers Two Major Crises Facing Jews

The Purpose Driven Life, Evangelical pastor Rick Warren's book about following the teachings of Jesus, has sold millions and made its author a household name. While Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis hasn't quite reached that level of fame, her books — Life Is a Test, The Committed Life, as well as Jewish Souls on Fire — which urge Jews to practice traditional Judaism, combined with her dramatic and emotional speaking style, have garnered her quite a following, particularly among ba'al teshuvah, or newly Orthodox Jews.

In fact, the Hungarian-born Jungreis — who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and lost most of her family in the Holocaust — says that more than 1,000 people attend her weekly Torah-portion classes on Manhattan's Upper West Side. During a recent speech before a much smaller Bucks County audience of about 250 people, Jungreis offered a message on personal responsibility, and utilizing the Torah and Jewish tradition as a guide to meet life's tribulations.

Her metaphor? That Jews should seek to gain the wisdom of the rooster.

Yes, the rooster.

"No matter how dense the darkness, the rooster knows that morning will come," said Jungreis, who in 1973 founded Hineni, a Jewish outreach organization. She also sits on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

"The secret of the Jew is that we never give up. We are God's eternal people," said Jungreis, who, during her hourlong speech, often oscillated between bringing her voice to a crescendo, then utilizing an almost agonized whisper.

Jungreis spoke at the Radisson Hotel in Trevose as part of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies' 18th Anniversary Gala. Once housed at the JCC Klein Branch in Northeast Philadelphia, the center is now based in Center City, and is "dedicated to communicating the beauty and depth of traditional Judaism to the contemporary Jew."

The center offers Torah classes, Shabbat services and Continuing Legal Education credits that focus on Jewish topics. A second location opened adjacent to the Elkins Park train station last year, and has become known for offering busy commuters "10 Minutes of Torah" before they hop on their trains to downtown Philly.

The gala featured a silent auction, as well as buffet stations, with everything from kosher Chinese and sushi to pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs.

'Before It's Too Late'

During her talk, Jungreis said that the Jewish people are currently in the midst of two crises — one posed by the radical Islamist government of Iran, the other by the ever-increasing assimilation of American Jewry and its marginalization of Jewish identity.

"We have to wake up our people before it's too late," she said. "The Jewish world is sleeping. Who is going to stop Ahmadinejad? The European Union? You must be joking!

"There is a new sentiment in Washington in which too many blame Jews for Iraq," she continued. "And Israel. I'm sorry to tell you that Israeli leadership is not what it should be. We still cannot free those boys who were captured," she said, referring to three Israeli soldiers kidnapped last summer by Palestinians.

The answer, Jungreis suggested, is to turn to prayer and place hopes in God. The author waded into potential controversy when she said that the Holocaust did not begin in 1938 or 1939, but had its roots in the late 1880s. She didn't cite the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, but mentioned Abraham Geiger, a philosophical father of Reform Judaism, and his declaration that Berlin was the "new Jerusalem," a central tenet of Classical Reform Judaism that de-emphasized the importance of the Jewish return to the land of Israel.

Further illustrating her point, Jungreis said that the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt began only after the Jews began abandoning their ways and becoming more like Egyptians.

Last month, Israeli's former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu caused a proverbial firestorm when he said on Israeli radio that the Holocaust was partially a punishment from God for the advent of Reform Judaism.

But that's not what Jungreis was arguing, according to Rabbi Dovid Wachs, executive director of Etz Chaim. Wachs said that Jungreis was referring to conversions and assimilation taking place among German Jews — something that could be referred to as a Holocaust.

He added that most Orthodox Jews downplay attempts to claim that a particular behavior caused a particular event, and are reticent to claim a divine cause for a particular event, as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell did when he claimed that homosexuality had caused the Sept. 11 attacks.

But he did say that yes, Orthodox Jews believe that there is a relationship between the behavior of the Jewish community and its adherence to the laws of the Torah, as well as its closeness to God. Put another way, when enough Jews act badly, bad things will happen to Jews.

"The Torah teaches that God distances himself," explained the rabbi. "When we withdraw ourselves from him, he withdraws from us."



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