Monsey, NY - Cherished Father Figure, Legendary Activist And Tireless Askan: The Inspiring Life Of Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald
New York - He earned letters of thanks from the White House, was the diplomatic representative for the South African Republic of Bophuthatswana in the United States, collaborated on projects with an Italian prince and successfully negotiated with the Lithuanian government to allow for the burial of Sifrei Torah that had been desecrated during World War II but to the tens of thousands of individuals whose lives he touched through his kiruv, educational and summer camping efforts, Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald was a father figure whose loving acceptance was a source of inspiration and confidence.
Rabbi Greenwald passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday while vacationing in Florida at the age of 82, as previously reported on VIN News.
Born in 1934, Rabbi Greenwald was the son of Eastern European immigrants who grew up on the Lower East Side before moving with his family to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A talmid of Yeshiva Torah V’daas who later studied at Telz in Cleveland, Rabbi Greenwald moved to Borough Park after marrying his wife Miriam, and he began his career teaching in local yeshivos.
By the time he turned 28, Rabbi Greenwald had already begun to dip his toes into political waters, lobbying on behalf of Torah Umesorah in an effort to create Jewish day schools nationwide. After successfully rallying the Jewish vote for Nelson Rockefeller’s quest to become governor of New York, Rabbi Greenwald was recruited for President Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972, successfully helping the Republican candidate win a significant amount of votes from the Jewish community who traditionally voted on the Democratic line.
As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Rabbi Greenwald tried to convince Jewish Democratic members of Congress to vote against Nixon’s impeachment, concerned that it would have negative ramifications for Israel, which was still reeling from the effects of the Yom Kippur war and needed the United States’ support. While his efforts were unsuccessful, they earned Rabbi Greenwald a letter of gratitude from President Nixon who praised him for his efforts.
A close confidante of Congressman Benjamin Gilman who chaired the House of Representative’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rabbi Greenwald used his influence to benefit others, working tirelessly to arrange the release of numerous hostages. Among those freed through Rabbi Greenwald’s efforts were Israeli citizen Miron Markus, who was taken hostage after his plane crashed in Mozambique in 1978, and Raul Granados, who was kidnapped by leftist guerillas in Guatemala City in 1979. Rabbi Greenwald made more than 25 trips to East Germany to arrange the release of refusenik Natan Sharansky who was jailed by the Soviet Union in 1978 for nine years on charges of spying for the United States and also made numerous unsuccessful attempts to help Jonathan Pollard obtain his freedom, including an attempt to broker a three way trade involving the United States, Russia and Israel.
Rabbi Greenwald’s efforts on behalf of others took him all over the globe. A 1997 trip to Vilna to commemorate the 200th yahrtzeit of the Vilna Gaon had Rabbi Greenwald and others working with the Lithuanian government to locate more than 300 Sifrei Torah that had been confiscated and defiled by the Nazis. While many of those Torahs were restored, several were irreparable and Rabbi Greenwald took part in a funeral for the destroyed Torahs that was attended by both visiting rabbis and Lithuanian officials. During that same trip Rabbi Greenwald persuaded the Lithuanian prime minister to preserve a Jewish cemetery that was slated to become part of a shopping mall.
“He was like the ‘can-do’ guy,” Abe Biderman, co-chairman of Shuvu, told VIN News. “There was nothing that Ronnie couldn’t do.”
Biderman recalled an incident that took place over 20 years ago, when someone contacted him on December 24th, which fell on a Sunday that year, saying that they had no passport and would be unable to board their international flight that was due to take off in three hours.
“I knew only one person in the world who could make it happen and that was Ronnie,” recalled Biderman. “He got it done. The words ‘no’ and ‘impossible’ didn’t exist in his vocabulary.”
Below video: Rabbi Greenwald addressing the the issue of Kids At Risk at the convention of Agudath Israel in 2011
Despite his worldwide activities, Rabbi Greenwald still managed to make time to be involved in the local Jewish community from his home base in Monsey. An unassuming man who was known to all as “Ronnie,” Rabbi Greenwald served as Torah U’Mesorah’s director of development, national chairman of the National Council for Synagogue Youth, executive director of Yeshiva Toras Emes, New York State Police chaplain, vice president of the Orthodox Union, founding chairman of the board of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, chairman of the board of the Women’s League Community Residences. He was also heavily involved in local affairs, representing the Jewish community last spring at an interfaith summit intended to calm tensions within Rockland County’s diverse community.
Yet it is his work with crisis intervention, his involvement with at risk teens, his tenure as dean at two girls’ schools and his role as camp director of Camp Sternberg for the past 50 years that has earned him the endless respect and the unabashed admiration of the Jewish community.
“When he saw needs he focused on solving them,” said Biderman. “He didn’t let anything stand in his way.”
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, director of Project YES, described Rabbi Greenwald as a visionary, tackling issues, including abuse and addiction, decades before others.
“I was just a kid in high school when he started dealing with at risk teens,” said Rabbi Horowitz. “He was always 25 years ahead of everybody else. 35 to 40 years ago he already had mental health professionals in his camp. He wasn’t even on the same wavelength as the rest of us. He was just amazing.”
Rabbi Horowitz recalled attending a sobriety ceremony several months ago, where each of ten recovering addicts picked someone to present them with a commemorative coin to mark this milestone in their lives, with one of the young women being honored selecting Rabbi and Mrs. Greenwald.
“This girl had been living in their house for four years,” said Rabbi Horowitz. “She was their adopted daughter. She thanked the Greenwalds for taking her in and believing in her when no one else did. For so many of these girls, they were their parents and their grandparents.”
While some relish their role in the spotlight and revel in their accomplishments, Rabbi Greenwald had an air of quiet humility.
“He was just a giant who walked around in a cardigan sweater,” said Rabbi Horowitz. “You read the words in the Navi, in Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu, that say when we don’t take care of the weak among us that Hashem doesn’t want our korbanos. Hashem wants us to help an orphan, or a widow or someone with broken wings. When we take care of them, that is where Hashem can be found and that was Ronnie Greenwald. He had Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu whispering in his ears, reminding him to take care of the people who needed help.”
Avi Fishoff, director of Home Sweeeet Home, which works with troubled young adults, remembered Rabbi Greenwald as both courageous and iconic.
“I will remember him as one of the very first leaders in klal yisrael to truly love the kids who are down and out and to invest in them even when it was not fashionable,” wrote Fishoff in an email. “Rabbi Greenwald helped hundreds of our lost and confused youth because he believed in them when no one else would and he loved them when no one else could. Not even themselves.”
Community activist Chaskel Bennett, a member of Agudath Israel of America’s board of trustees, described Rabbi Greenwald as an inspiration.
“Reb Ronnie was well known as a fearless advocate for the underdog,” remarked Bennett. “If people want to understand why communal activism is an endeavor worth pursuing, look at Ronnie Greenwald’s life and accomplishments and understand how much one person can achieve, if only they try. He is the modern model by which all other activists should be judged. Ronnie earned unanimous respect and admiration for his willingness to say it the way it is and back it up with action. His kindness, generosity and incredible determination to help all people, is irreplaceable. His death is an incredible loss for Klal Yisroel.”
Zvi Gluck, director of Amudim which deals with crisis intervention, and son of well known activist Rabbi Edgar Gluck, described his long term relationship with Rabbi Greenwald, which included his position as chairman of Amudim’s advisory board
“I know him since before I was born,” said Gluck. “My father has been working with him for 50 or 60 years. About 15 years ago he was the first person I spoke to about kids at risk. He got it then and he gets it now.”
When Gluck’s wife took the position of camp nurse at Camp Sternberg several years ago, his relationship with Rabbi Greenwald deepened.
“He broke the mold with Camp Sternberg, getting the Federation to fund separate camps for boys and girls, something that was unheard of at the time,” said Gluck. “I could talk about hundreds of thousands of Jewish families that came about because girls spent summers at Camp Sternberg.”
Gluck recalled riding around camp on a golf cart with Rabbi Greenwald on camp visiting days.
“Mothers and grandmothers from over two and three generations ago would come over to Rabbi Greenwald and he remembered them all,” said Gluck. “He treated every one of them like they were his own child.”
His position as director of Camp Sternberg afforded Rabbi Greenwald the ability to build relationships with his campers, many of whom came from troubled homes or had little connection to their religious roots.
“We had a Yiddish club where girls who came from Chasidishe homes would sit on his porch with him on Shabbos afternoons and the rule was you were only allowed to speak Yiddish,” recalled Gluck. “The lesson was that you could be heimish and still be cool, showing the girls that the way they were was okay. He never tried to change everyone.”
An estimated 55,000 campers have attended Camp Sternberg which has borne Rabbi Greenwald’s imprint for the last fifty years, with a unique mix of girls spending their summers together in the camp which includes Sternberg, younger and older Pioneers divisions, Camp Anna Heller and programs for the special needs population.
“He was so proud of the fact that he had girls from the wealthiest families coming and sleeping in tents in his camp,” said Gluck. “That was the beauty of Camp Sternberg and it was classic Rabbi Greenwald. It was a place where everybody mixed, no matter who they were, because in camp everybody was the same. Today it seems like everyone has some kind of label but not in Sternberg. Ronnie had no labels and that is what made him who he was.”
Aviva Gluck was a camper in Camp Sternberg for ten years and has spent her last seven summers back in Sternberg, this time as the camp’s nurse. She noted that Rabbi Greenwald’s innovative ideas were the inspiration for many popular camp programs that exist today.
“Sternberg had the first camp for special needs kids, Camp Mishkan,” said Mrs. Gluck. “The first year everybody told him that he was crazy, that people would be afraid to send their daughters to Sternberg because of the Mishkan program. People told him that no one would be willing to work as a counselor in Mishkan so he hired aides to take care of the campers.”
Those who predicted doom and gloom for Camp Mishkan were immediately proven wrong.
“The girls in Sternberg would go over to Mishkan and volunteer and they realized that it was such a positive experience that it wouldn’t be a problem to get counselors,” said Mrs. Gluck. “After Mishkan was successful, Camp HASC opened.”
Rabbi Greenwald’s next idea was Kesher, a separate division for higher functioning special needs kids. Once again the concept was such a hit that it was copied by other camps. Camp Simcha also had its roots in Sternberg, starting first on the camp’s grounds at the end of the regular camping season before moving to their own facility a few years later. Sternberg’s wildly popular Pioneers programs, with girls living in rustic bunks or tents that have no indoor plumbing and spending their days learning to canoe and undertaking challenging hikes, including a daunting 27 mile, two day trek known simply in camp as “27”, were yet another innovation that began in Sternberg before spreading to other camps.
“Rabbi Greenwald was a pioneer and like a second father to me,” said Mrs. Gluck. “The amount of girls’ whose lives he touched? I would say a million.”
Close to 1,000 people came out on Wednesday night to honor Rabbi Greenwald at Yeshiva Ohr Sameach in Monsey before he was flown to Israel for a second funeral at Neve Yerushalayim with kevura on Har Tamir. Among those who spoke were Rabbi Greenwald’s son, Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, principal of Meohr Bais Yaakov in Jerusalem, who spoke about his parent’s penchant for opening up their home to those who had nowhere else to go.
“We shared you from the time we were born,” said Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald in his eulogy. “There were always other people that you were their tatty, their zaidy, you were their older brother. I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have extended siblings. We would go to Eretz Yisroel and come home and find new siblings. How one person could do so much, I don’t know.”
An additional 350 people showed up for an impromptu levaya at JFK airport to pay their respects to Rabbi Greenwald, whose ability to see the good in every person inspired many to maximize their potential.
Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder and director of Ohr Naava, brought Rabbi Greenwald in as dean of Bnot Chaya Academy, a girls’ high school that is part of Ohr Naava. Rabbi Wallerstein recalled the first time Rabbi Greenwald addressed the student body.
“He got up and he said to the girls, ‘Many people live in the world of black and white. When you look at a kid in the world of black and white, if they are good, they are good and if they are bad, they are bad. But not me. I put on rose colored glasses, therefore everything I look at in the world isn’t black and white, it is rosy. Everyone else might look at you in black and white but to me you are roses. I see the color in your souls.’”
Rabbi Wallerstein noted that Rabbi Greenwald attended every school shabbaton and graduation.
“He didn’t see anything but their potential and their beauty,” said Rabbi Wallerstein. “What he carried on his shoulders will take 1,000 people to carry.”
Rabbi Greenwald leaves behind his wife Miriam, his children Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, Rabbi Chananya Greenwald, Bassi Wolf, Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald, Chevy Lapin and Chana Shterna Lewenstein, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as scores of adopted children and their families whose lives he changed forever.
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