The last time I checked, it was accurate to say that the Rev. Billy Graham had spoken in person to more people -- as in crowds at mass rallies, as opposed to on television -- than any other person.
That's a hard thing to calculate over history, but no one else comes close in the modern era, at least. That would make Graham a rather famous individual.
Thus, calling someone the "Jewish Billy Graham" is a significant statement, as in this New York Times headline the other day: "Esther Jungreis, ‘the Jewish Billy Graham,’ Dies at 80."
This story intrigued me for several reasons. I had heard this woman's name but knew little or nothing about her, which is interesting since I have always been interested in issues of Jewish outreach to secular Jews (and the religious and demographic impact of intermarriage, which is a related subject). My interests date back to a University of Illinois graduate-school readings class on post-Holocaust Jewish culture.
So who was Jungreis? Here is the Times overture:
Esther Jungreis, a charismatic speaker and teacher whose enormously popular revival-style assemblies urged secular Jews to study Torah and embrace traditional religious values, died on Tuesday in Brooklyn. She was 80. ...
Ms. Jungreis (pronounced YOUNG-rice), a Hungarian Jew who spent several months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a child, was often called “the Jewish Billy Graham,” and her artfully staged rallies, with theatrical lighting and musical accompaniment, were in fact inspired by Mr. Graham’s Christian crusades.
She styled herself “rebbetzin,” the Yiddish honorific bestowed on wives of rabbis. Her husband, Rabbi Theodore Jungreis, led the Congregation Ohr Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in North Woodmere, N.Y., on Long Island.
So that explains the origin of the Billy Graham comparison. However, I still wondered how famous this woman was, not among Americans in general (like Billy Graham), but among modern Jews worldwide. Also, what did the leaders of other Jewish movements think of her work?
Consider this next chunk of the Times obituary, which contains references to several highly controversial issues and statements.
Alarmed at the threats to Judaism posed by assimilation, secularism and the rise of religious cults, Rebbetzin Jungreis held a rally attended by 10,000 people at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden in 1973 to inspire a Jewish awakening. She also founded an outreach organization, Hineni, its name -- Hebrew for “I am here” -- alluding to Abraham’s answer when called upon by God in Genesis.
The organization offered classes in the Torah and social mixers at which Jewish singles could find one another. As its leader, Rebbetzin Jungreis addressed large audiences around the United States and abroad and, beginning in 1982, broadcast a weekly half-hour Torah program, “Hineni,” on National Jewish Television.
Her style was impassioned, her message urgent. She routinely called the threat of assimilation “a spiritual Holocaust.” Onstage, she would exhort and scold, admonish and warn, tugging at the heartstrings with both hands, distraught at the erosion of Jewish identity and religious devotion.
It was provocative, to say the least, for Jungreis to use Holocaust language in remarks about assimilation, intermarriage and unbelief. I have covered debates about the use of that term by opponents of legalized abortion, as well as by scholars in discussions of other mass killings around the world, and I know this is a hot-button topic for many Jewish leaders. Also, what did Jungreis say about other social and moral issues in the modern world?
This brings me to my main point: Why doesn't this feature include some commentary from liberal and secular Jews? It's hard to imagine that they all welcomed her fierce defense of Jewish faith and practice and her arguments that both were crucial to the survival of the Jewish people.
Also, how about the leaders of other conservative Jewish groups that did similar work? When I think about Jewish outreach to other Jews, the first thing that leaps to mind is the global work of Chabad Lubavitch. Did Lubavitchers cooperate with Jungreis? Why or why not?
I was left asking if (a) this fascinating woman was really as famous as implied by the Times team and (b) whether this story needed input from relevant Jewish leaders on both the cultural left and right -- but especially on the left.
The story makes it clear that she did not see herself as an enemy of liberal movements among religious Jews. This is how the obituary ends:
Her aim, she said, was to bring secular Jews home to their religion, but not to any specific form of it. “There is not one page in Torah that says anything about being Orthodox or Reform,” she told Malka Drucker, the author of “White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America” (2002). “These modern-day manifestations have only created disharmony. I believe that every Jew is a Jew; we have one Shabbat, one God, one Torah and one faith.”
Nevertheless, to paraphrase an insight offered by a Jewish leader I interviewed long ago in Denver: The most controversial issue in modern Judaism is God -- period. Most of the other debates in the Jewish community are linked to that one (or One) to some degree.
Where are the other Jewish voices in this piece? How would other Jewish leaders evaluate her work and her pronouncements?