This week, Israeli singing sensation Ishay Ribo attracted thousands of his fans to a jam/packed Madison Square Garden for a concert.
It’s very rare that a Jewish singer or celebrity promoting a Jewish theme can play the Garden and draw so many people to the event.
However, it did happen before — exactly 50 years ago.
On November 18, 1973, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis – then just 37 years old – spoke before a crowd of thousands of Jews at Madison Square Garden. The event was her brainchild. American Jewish youth were drifting away from Judaism, and Rebbetzin Jungreis desperately wanted to ignite their souls.
A few months earlier, she had founded a kiruv movement called Hineni and sought a large venue to kick off her campaign. Along with her father, she approached Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rav Eliyahu Henkin, and the Satmar Rebbe. All four gave their blessings for the grand event.
Jungreis originally had the idea of renting out Madison Square Garden for the launch three years earlier, in 1970. However, even back then such a project was costly — and someone needed to fund it. Rebbetzin Jungreis thought to contact a man named Joseph Wohl, who had built Long Island Jewish Hospital. If she could convince him of the importance of her cause, she thought he might underwrite her huge Madison Square Garden plan. But she didn’t know anyone who knew Mr. Wohl.
Undaunted, Rebbetzin Jungreis looked up Mr. Wohl’s number in the phone book and called him. She asked to meet him about the idea. He invited her to his home, and she passionately spoke to him and his wife about the idea. Amazingly, Joseph Wohl gave her a check to cover the entire Madison Square Garden event! He became the first chairman of Hineni.
Getting the money turned out to be the easy part. Now that she had to figure out how to fill the seats for such a big event.
She rented a van with a stage and piped-in music, and she went to various college campuses advertising the event. The New York Post reported on that event, saying the Jews have their Billy Graham. “She’s 5 feet tall and she’s blond,” said The Post.
It took a long time to put the Madison Square Garden event together, but in November 1973 the rebbetzin filled the Garden. There was not enough seats for all those who wanted to attend, so the overflow crowd sat on the stage. Rebbetzin Jungreis invited all the Jewish organizations to have booths in the hall and to give out their literature. It was billed a Night of Unity.
It may have been Rebbetzin Jungreis’s finest moment on stage. Always fiery and always inspirational, there was a special electricity in the air that night. “You are a Jew,” said Jungreis. “You knew suffering. You entered the flames. But you forgot your past. You only knew one thing: Sh’ma Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu HaShem Echad.” Thousands of attendees then recited the Sh’ma prayer together.
In 1973, this survivor of the Bergen Belsen concentration camps looked at the state of American Jewry and cried. She thought about what she could do and how she could help. And this physically tiny but mentally strong woman decided she wanted to fill Madison Square Garden with Jews — and accomplished her dream! She recited Sh’ma Yisrael with thousands of other Jews, and helped bring many of them back home.
Rebbetzin Jungreis passed away in 2016. But her legacy lives on. Today the Hineni organization is a thriving organization, offering Torah classes and other social events for unaffiliated Jews throughout the world.