Tag Archives: Kiruv

Jew of the Week: Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

The Polish Nobility’s Hasidic Pharmacist 

A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.

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Words of the Week

I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others.
– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Jew of the Week: Sivan Rahav-Meir

Israel’s Favourite News Anchor – and Rebbetzin

Sivan Rahav (b. 1981) was born in Herzliya to a secular family. She knew she wanted to be a journalist from childhood, and would already interview her friends in second grade. By 8, she earned herself a “children’s press” card, and by 14 was interviewing the likes of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Meanwhile, Rahav used her journalistic skills to dig into her roots, and soon returned to Orthodox observance. After finishing high school early, she completed her degree in political science from Tel-Aviv University in just two years, then served in the IDF as a military reporter. During this time, she met her future husband, a fellow Orthodox IDF reporter, Yedidya Meir. The two still work on their biggest stories together – Yedidya hosting a show on Radio Kol Chai and writing for the B’Sheva newspaper, and Sivan hosting a show on Galei Tzahal (Army Radio), writing for Yediot Ahronot (Israel’s largest newspaper), and hosting Channel 2’s prime-time television news hour. During her last maternity leave (after giving birth to her fifth child), she realized she was tired of the negativity and politics of news, and decided to devote more time to spreading positive, spiritual Jewish wisdom. She started giving weekly Torah classes in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, which now draw over 1000 people in packed venues. A master of social media, her Torah thoughts regularly reach over a million listeners through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube. Rahav-Meir also published a bestselling book on the weekly parasha, translated into English last year. In addition to recently being voted Israel’s favourite female news personality, she has become one of Israel’s most successful kiruv speakers, and a tremendous role model for all baalei teshuva. Rahav-Meir is making waves in the world of Israeli journalism, too, and helping to stem the long-standing anti-religious bias of the secular Israeli media. “For secular reporters,” she says, “Judaism was always a problem. But I wanted to talk about it as a solution.”

Words of the Week

The media is seeking instances where religion is excessive, extreme… I think the media doesn’t cover the real things that are happening. Take selichot, for example: Every year 100,000 people come to the Kotel for the last night of selichot. The Kotel plaza is full [but it’s not covered in the news], yet when an old band comes to sing in Ramat Gan’s park and draws 1,000 or 10,000 people, the media will livestream the event and the reporters will be there…
– Sivan Rahav-Meir

Jew of the Week: Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

JungreisEsther Jungreis (1936-2016) was born in Hungary, the daughter of a rabbi. During the Holocaust, the family was sent to Bergen-Belsen, and later loaded up on a train headed for Auschwitz. On route, they managed to escape to Switzerland with the help of Rudolph Kastner’s Aid and Rescue Committee. The quota for migrants to Israel was filled, so the family was given papers to go to the States. Jungreis went on to marry a rabbi and settled in North Woodmere, New York, where the couple founded the town’s Jewish Center and Congregation Ohr Torah. Seeing the rampant assimilation in the United States, Jungreis made it her life’s work to prevent what she saw as a “spiritual holocaust”. In 1973, she started an organization called Hineni, aimed at inspiring Jewish youth to return to their roots. Under her dedicated leadership and moving speeches, Hineni grew to become an international organization, no longer focused solely on youth but rousing countless young and old alike. Jungreis organized events and gave lectures around the world – visiting fifteen or more countries a year was normal for her. Her weekly class drew as many as 1500 people at a time. Meanwhile, Jungreis wrote a regular column for The Jewish Press (the world’s largest English-language Jewish paper) for some 45 years, making it the longest running column in the publication’s history. She also wrote four best-selling books, and had a television programme. In 2004, the Rebbetzin spoke at the Republican National Convention, and in 2008 was selected by President Bush to join him on his delegation to Jerusalem for Israel’s 60th anniversary. Today, she is recognized as one of the central pioneers of the modern kiruv (Jewish outreach) movement. Sadly, the Rebbetzin passed away yesterday. She worked tirelessly until the very end, and in her last article – published just last week – finished with these words: “When will we wake up? When will we don our priestly garments and fulfill our G-d-given destiny and be ‘a light unto all mankind’?”

Words of the Week

A long life is not good enough, but a good life is long enough.
– Rabbi Theodore Meshulem Jungreis