JJ Greenberg Memorial Award Essay: Felicia Herman

JJ Greenberg Memorial Award Essays
Felicia Herman2009 recipient

JJ Greenberg is on my mind and in my heart every day.

Yes, on a practical level, because The Natan Fund, the foundation I run, is named in his memory, as is my second child, Nathan. (JJ’s Hebrew name was Natan.) And winning JFN’s JJ Greenberg Memorial Award in 2009 was an incredible honor and further reinforced the importance of JJ’s legacy and spirit in my work.

However, far beyond the practical expressions of connection, WWJJD? – What Would JJ Do? – is the ethical and spiritual measuring stick against which I judge how I treat other people and carry myself in the world. I don’t measure up to JJ’s example every day, by far. But I try.

From his everyday actions, from the smallest gestures, JJ inspired (and inspires) me and so many others to make the world a kinder, more meaningful and more joyful place. A few examples:

When I worked with JJ at the Steinhardt Foundation, he said hello to everyone when he came in each morning, spending a moment or two with each person. Thus, he taught me: Care for those who work with and for you; make sure everyone feels connected and understands how necessary they are to your shared endeavors.

JJ loved live music, and took friends, family and colleagues to concerts all the time. He never let my husband and me pay for our tickets, and I’ll bet the same was true for all his guests. Don’t separate work life from your personal life. Build authentic, caring relationships. Share the things that bring you joy. Be generous. Have fun.

JJ dressed like Elvis on Purim and made sure that the Steinhardt Foundation staff spent time doing Jewish learning with his father and celebrating Jewish holidays as a community. He embodied “Jewish Joy,” which was not only a great use of his initials, but also one of the hallmarks of the Foundation’s work. In a job that enables others to experience joyful Jewish experiences, don’t forget about your own (and your team’s) Jewish lives. We do this work because we are part of the community, and so that we can also benefit from the richness and beauty of Jewish life.

The story about JJ that most informs my journey as a Jewish professional, however, is one that he was not (necessarily) there for. Years ago, a group of Natan members and I were driving to Jerusalem on our annual trip. As we passed the cemetery where JJ is buried, I realized that one of the people on the trip had never been to Jerusalem before, and that JJ, for sure, would lead everyone in the Shechechiyanu, the prayer that thanks G-d for bringing us to this day and is often said upon arriving in Israel or Jerusalem for the first time. We aren’t often overtly religious at Natan, and I’m incredibly self-conscious about speaking Hebrew. But WWJJD? I knew very clearly. So, I stood in the front of the bus and led the group in prayer.

As I got back to my seat, shaking, I checked my phone for new email. Just at that moment, Blu Greenberg, JJ’s mother, sent me an email about marching in the Salute to Israel Parade group dedicated to JJ’s memory. That moment of karma proved to me that I had done what JJ would have done. I was brave and proudly Jewish, I led with an open heart, I empowered people to feel joy and meaning, and it was good.

From a series of essays by past recipients of the JJ Greenberg Memorial Award.