Rebbetzin, a survivor, views matchmaking as holy endeavor

Even before she took the stage to talk about her new book, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was "on." Not "on" in the sense that she would be shortly, but "on" in the sense of optimistic perseverance.

The Hungarian-born Jungreis — a wispy blond amalgamation of Billy Graham, Bill Clinton and Barbara Walters — was sending out emotional tentacles hither and yonder. A survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp still coming to grips with the death of her husband five years ago, Jungreis was surrounded last month by well-wishers at San Francisco's Hebrew Academy, as she discussed and signed copies of her latest book, "The Committed Marriage."

As the mostly female, middle-aged crowd swarmed around her, Jungreis tossed out sunny salutation after sunny salutation.

"Hi, how are you?" she exclaimed to everyone and no one in particular.

"It's soooo good to see you," she said to someone who later confessed he'd never met Jungreis before. But a lack of familiarity didn't dissuade Jungreis from treating each and every audience member at the Hebrew Academy like long-lost friends. They were, presumably, all from the same tribe, after all.

Therefore, it stood to reason that they were all potential recipients of the "good word" and potential supporters of Hineni ("Here I Am" in Hebrew), Jungreis' international outreach organization.

And here she was, barely 5 feet tall, elegantly dressed, imperially slim and blond hair tightly coifed, ready to deliver the "good word" to an audience more than eager to receive it.

Just after Hebrew Academy's Rabbi Pinchas Lipner surreptitiously dinged the Bay Area for its paltry turnout for Orthodox events, Jungreis took the stage to fervent applause. It may not have been a packed house, but the 60 people who came were there ready to believe.

Jungreis is a popular lecturer, with a particularly strong following among observant women. She has a weekly column in the Jewish Press, a New York Orthodox newspaper, as well as on the Web site. In addition, she has written the books "Jewish Soul of Fire" and "The Committed Life."

Her latest, "The Committed Marriage," is subtitled "A Guide to Finding a Soulmate and Building a Relationship Through Timeless Biblical Wisdom."

She views bringing couples together as a holy endeavor. "Matchmaking," she writes, "is not something out of 'Fiddler on the Roof.' It is a mitzvah that takes on gigantic proportions, because it's more than just helping two people: it affects generations to come."

In keeping with that mission of ensuring Jewish survival, Jungreis says her life is devoted to "fighting the spiritual Holocaust of Jews everywhere." Hineni, with centers in New York and Jerusalem, offers programs on Jewish scripture and rituals, counseling and social services.

On a personal level, Jungreis' weapons of choice differ from the bellicose "shout-at-the-devil" bravado of a Graham or a Swaggart. Her patois had the pained empathy of former President Clinton, with one notable exception. In order to see, feel and hear the power of the "good word," Jungreis doesn't feel the audience's pain.

They feel hers.

Although her talk included many examples of Jews who, by following the "word," came back into the fold — among them former KGB agents who "wept like babies" after rediscovering their Jewish roots and hot-shot Jewish stockbrokers humbled by crumbling markets — it was mostly about how Jungreis had survived all of her adversity.

Jungreis, a mother of four who was married for 44 years, told the audience that having a "good eye" — or trying to see the positive in any situation, coupled with a firm belief in the munificence of God's way — will help any couple (or individual) navigate the rocky shoals of their lives.

Several times, as she talked about surviving Bergen-Belsen as a child and the death of her husband — Jungreis seemed to be on the verge of tears. Already possessing a soft, ethereal voice, Jungreis talked in little more than a pained whisper when telling the audience how to confront loss.

Judging by the audience's reactions — many members were sniffling and dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs — the rebbetzin struck several emotional chords.

Shortly thereafter, the rebbetzin moved to the back of the auditorium, put on her ebullient smile and proceeded to autograph books.