Esther Jungreis

Question for the Gray Lady: What did other Jews think of the 'Jewish Billy Graham'?

Question for the Gray Lady: What did other Jews think of the 'Jewish Billy Graham'?

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 American Jews. Also, what did the leaders of other Jewish movements think of her work?

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