Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Still Matchmaking After All These Years

By Lisa Keys

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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Someone who makes a successful shidduch, or marriage match, is called a matchmaker. Someone who makes more than a thousand such matches is called Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.

Jungreis, who claims to have made an average of one shidduch a week for the past 30 years, shares her insights into marital bliss in her third book, “The Committed Marriage: A Guide to Finding a Soulmate and Building a Relationship Through Timeless Biblical Wisdom” (Harper San Francisco). Now 67, this petite powerhouse shows no signs of slowing down.

Known to her cabal of devotees as “the Rebbetzin,” Jungreis has been dubbed “the Jewish Billy Graham” and “the Jewish Tammy Faye Bakker (minus the false eyelashes)” by the press. In 1973, Jungreis and her husband founded Hineni, an organization that seeks to reconnect young Jews to their Jewish identity; the organization’s main program was a weekly Torah class led by Jungreis. In the 1990s, her Tuesday-night lectures gained a reputation as a place where people not only reconnected with their heritage, but also connected with potential soulmates. Attendance grew from eight people in an office to a standing-room-only crowd of singles at the uptown synagogue Kehilath Jeshurun, and Jungreis became the subject of a spate of articles declaring the rebbetzin at the forefront of a trend that made religion hip — even sexy.

A 1997 New York magazine cover story noted of her Torah lectures: “Most of the crowd was young (25 to 45) and with their supple leather briefcases and laptop computer bags would have looked more at home decompressing after work in a bar.” The “rapt audience,” the story said, “was so quiet you could almost hear the rustle of an Armani blazer anytime someone shifted in his seat.”

Six years later, Jungreis told the Forward, “things change a little — the economy, the politics, the lingo — but not that much. The bottom line is, everyone is still looking to meet that special person.” Her own special someone, Rabbi Meshulem Jungreis, died of colon cancer in 1996.

At a recent lecture attended by the Forward, it appeared that a few things had indeed changed. A glut of young, professional women scanned the audience, re-applying lipstick; one tucked a copy of “Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dream Girl — A Woman’s Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship” into her chumash. But the men — some with gray beards and black hats — didn’t look quite as youthful and stylish.

Back in 1997, “there were more young, cute, guys, as I recall,” said a disappointed Lauren, 31, during the social hour after the lecture.

Nonetheless, while Armani may be out of fashion at the classes today, the rebbetzin’s wisdom endures. With her diminutive frame and breathless, Hungarian-accented voice, Jungreis is a captivating speaker who can weave biblical Hebrew with slang — all, impressively, without notes. Her advice, though practical and simple, makes heads in the audience nod; it’s the verbal equivalent of a mother finding her child’s misplaced house keys, hidden, conveniently, where they belong.

The Torah portion for the week was Emor. Taken from Leviticus, it includes among other things, God’s lifestyle directives to Aaron and his sons, the priests. “In Judaism, love means to give,” Jungreis said, gripping a microphone in her right hand. “It’s like nursing; the more milk you give, the more milk you have. When you stop giving, your milk dries up. With love, the moment you stop giving, your love dries up.”

That same casual, anecdotal style — rooted in scripture but tied to people’s personal relationships — is reflected in “The Committed Marriage,” a book filled with lessons on how to “live in harmony with your soulmate.” Jungreis describes advice she’s dispensed to a disgruntled husband (“if a man lives without a wife he lives without joy, without goodness, without blessing,”), a warring couple (“don’t invite the Satan into your lives”) and a woman who had an upsetting cell-phone conversation about her ex-husband (“we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and we have a responsibility to get involved,” she writes).

“I think young people are really hurting,” Jungreis told the Forward, touching a reporter’s arm for emphasis. “Singles can’t find matches. People who are married are disappointed. We have to bring the wisdom of the Torah to help them organize their lives.”

If Hineni has unofficially become known as a matchmaking organization, Jungries plays the matchmaker — but she does it with assistance. After the recent lecture, a handful of men and women approached Phyllis Blackman, a middle-aged woman with black hair and a huge smile. In two white binders — one for men, one for women —Blackman takes notes on vital statistics such as hobbies, height and religious observance. “We try to match people’s insides as well as their outsides,” Blackman said. “Matchmakers observe everything.”

Jungreis, too, keeps a running list of names and numbers, scribbled into an oversized notebook. “It’s not just matchmaking,” she said. “We walk the couple through the process.” Hineni now offers a variety of family-oriented classes, from “Raising Spiritual Children” to “Torah for Toddlers.”

“When I opened the Torah class for the Jewish public at large, it was something new,” said Jungreis. “It was a radical concept, a new way of socializing.”

“It’s something different than the clubs, where it’s just bodies meeting. Here, minds and hearts are meeting. It’s bigger than you,” she said. “You’re not just looking in someone’s eyes, you’re looking in the same direction.”

At its peak, Jungreis’s “world’s-largest” class packed some 2,000 single-and-searching into Kehilath Jeshurun’s sanctuary. “Thank God I got them all married,” she said, smiling.

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