2016-06-30
NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (RNS)--Hundreds of single, hip professionals on Manhattan's Upper East Side set aside their skim lattes and turn off their cell phones on Tuesday nights because they are looking for more than sex in the city. It's not power yoga or a trendy guru who brings them together. Instead, it's a Torah reading by a 64-year-old grandmother.

The grandmother is Esther Jungreis, whose stage style was described by The New Yorker magazine as "a cross between Dr. Ruth and Gracie Allen." She dons the title "Rebbetzin"--meaning wife of a rabbi--and explains the Torah while practicing old-fashioned matchmaking in her weekly classes at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

"To make matches is not a hobby," she said with a faint Hungarian accent. "It's not just a nice thing to do. Matchmaking is a mitzvah. Mitzvah means it's a commandment, a righteous deed."

In her eyes, Torah study and introductions for singles are equally important efforts to encourage Jews to practice their faith, marry and have children.

"One of the first things God did was to make a match between Adam and Eve," Jungreis said. "She was the only female on planet Earth, but God introduced her, because you have to help people connect."

Jungreis (pronounced Yungrice) has been helping people connect to one another and to their faith for more than 40 years. She is a Holocaust survivor and the author of two books. Her late husband was a rabbi, as was her father.

In 1973, she founded Hineni (which means "Here I Am" in Hebrew) to encourage Jews to return to their roots. In 1982, the Hineni Heritage Center opened in Manhattan, offering programs ranging from Hebrew classes to socials. There is also an office in Jerusalem.

Jungreis, who prefers to identify herself as Jewish rather than specifying Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, began offering the Tuesday night classes at the Hineni center, but moved them to the synagogue when attendance grew.

"I have a lot of faith that the person I'm going to marry could be someone that is going to that class or will go there," said Kim Cherovsky, a 33-year-old graduate student who attends regularly.

Many share that belief. During the social hour following her talks, the crowd buzzes with conversation, as singles clutch paper cups of Diet Coke and mingle. Those who need advice or an introduction line up to speak with the 5-foot-tall, smartly dressed Jungreis, who jots impressions in Hungarian in a spiral notebook.

Others fill out questionnaires about their dating preferences, including education, height and religious practices. They wait for the flash of the digital camera and join 1,100 others in the "Date-a-base" computer matching service. The program was created for Hineni, and two staff members oversee the matchmaking process.

Those who come to her classes are looking for a firm foundation. They may seek a connection with a lifelong mate, a sense of meaning in their lives, or both.

"She always talks about altruism, kindness, and decency," said Randy Present, a 37-year-old CPA. "She says things you just don't hear in the day-to-day world of corporate America."

Jungreis, a self-confessed computer illiterate, relies on intuition to make matches based on common goals rather than love at first sight.

"The words 'falling in love' tell you the story itself. You fall and eventually you stand up. What do you stand on?" she said. "It's important to have chemistry, but it has to be built on something solid."

Jungreis is not surprised that professionals find her message meaningful.

"This is a generation that should be so happy with itself," she said. "Life is easy, I mean fax machines, and freezers, and everything's at your fingertips. [But] people are searching for that which is genuine. There has been a terrible disappointment in the promises made by our materialistic, hedonistic, goal-oriented society. It has left us with the taste of ashes in our mouths."

Her alternative is anything but dry. She finds messages in the Torah tailor-made for upwardly mobile singles in 2000.

"It really feels like a workout for the soul," said Cherovsky. Since she began attending three years ago, she has started to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath. She, like others in the class, credits Jungreis with strengthening her faith.

"She has an amazing ability to bridge what's in the Torah with life in the here and now," said Present.


After reading from Genesis, Jungreis told one gathering, "God did not create the world so you could play tennis and make a lot of money."

In fact, she tells her audience, God wants people to get married, but they have been led people astray by cultural messages, including feminism and the sexual revolution. Some find themselves alone, unfulfilled and separated from their family support systems.

"Singles are truly single," Jungreis said. "They don't have anyone to rely on."

Her classes offer membership in a community that, Present said, feels "almost like an extended family."

For Jungreis, who has four grown children, two of whom are rabbis, making marriages and building families is both an integral part of faith and a positive response to the challenges and tragedies of life. As important as she believes this is, she's not just reaching out to singles, she's reaching out to souls.

"Everybody has a soul, and the soul yearns to connect with God," she said. "Would you imagine that God would throw us into the world without an instruction manual? That's the Torah and that's what I'm committed to."

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