Aish series launches with cautionary speech

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, the widow of a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has become a major spiritual voice in her own right. Jungreis, author of Life is a Test: How to Meet Life’s Challenges Successfully, launched the 2009 Aish HaTorah Speaker Series last week, sharing her deep concerns over the rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions throughout the world. She encourages the observance of mitzvot in the face of those challenges.

About 150 people attended her talk, “Does Judaism Matter in the 21st Century?” at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Clayton. Jungreis, who was married to the late Rabbi Theodore Jungreis of New York, is a native of Hungary. Along with her mother, she survived the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp.

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While her countenance was cheerful, much of Jungreis’ message was grim. After stating how pleased she was to be back in St. Louis for another Aish lecture, Jungreis said that she was soon to go on a 10-nation European speaking tour.

“However, I have heard from the rabbis in Greece and Turkey that my talks have to be canceled,” she said. “They are afraid that the anti-Semitism in those countries has become so serious that it would not be safe.

“I am a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and I can tell you that what is happening in Europe today is similar to what happened in Europe in the 1930s,” Jungreis continued. “The differences between yesterday and today are that yesterday we had the crematoria. Today, tremendous destruction can result from pushing a button.”

Jungreis noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whom she called “the new Hitler,” has received a warm reception worldwide, and been given a public platform in the mainstream media.

At the United Nations, “[Ahmedinejad] said that Jews are responsible for the financial ruin we are facing. He got a standing ovation,” Jungreis said. “Last night, he was celebrated on Larry King’s show, who could only say how young he looked, and that he could not believe that he had grandchildren. He was also honored by seven Christian churches in New York.”

Jungreis noted that the conflict in Gaza showed anti-Israel bias. “The Hamas killers who send the missiles to hit us day and night are celebrated, and Israel is the one who is blamed,” she said. “Even in this country, it has become politically incorrect to identify those who send the rockets into Israel as terrorists.”

In addition to the global financial meltdown, Jungreis said the world has been “experiencing volcanoes, floods, tsunamis and crazy accidents. If you know your Bible, we can look at these as the Final Days before the coming of the Messiah.”

Jungreis said American Jews should reinvigorate their connection to Judaism, and she noted three essential steps for these difficult times:

“First, make Torah your occupation, let it consume you 24/7, whether you are a doctor, a lawyer,” Jungreis said. “Become a Torah person, and keep reminding yourself of who you are.

“Second, make performing acts of kindness a priority. Remember that unlike the childish saying that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is wrong; words can hurt; they can leave permanent scars on your soul. Be good to each other at all times. My father would tell me always to smile, that when there is no reason to smile, put on a smile and God will give you every reason to smile.

“Third, if you want to perfect yourself, remember the third meal of Shabbos. In this third meal, you are not sitting down to satiate your appetite, but you wash, say the hamotzi and recite the 23rd Psalm. I am not young anymore and I teach on Shabbos, but no matter how tired I am I have this third meal of Shabbos every week. Shabbos is a unique sign between the Jewish people and God.”

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger, director of Aish HaTorah of St. Louis, said Jungreis was a natural fit for the Aish Speaker Series. “Rebbetzin Jungreis is a dynamo and a tremendous force for good in the American Jewish community,” he said. “We are pleased and honored that this outstanding American Jewish leader, who is so inspirational, has returned to our community to share her wisdom with us.”

Missouri State Rep. Rachel Storch, D-64th District, who chaired the event, said Jungreis’ talk was an important one. “It is a deep honor…to be in the presence of spiritual greatness,” she said. “We are fortunate to hear her message in this strange and precarious time.”

The Aish HaTorah Speaker Series continues at 7 p.m. March 31, when Judy Feld Carr will speak on “The Rescuer: The Amazing True Story of How One Woman Helped Save the Jews of Syria” at the Crowne Plaza in Clayton, 7750 Carondelet Avenue.