Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Still Matchmaking After All These Years

By Lisa Keys

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.