JJ Greenberg Memorial Award Essay: Rachel Levin

JJ Greenberg Memorial Award Essays
Rachel Levin2004 recipient

Last August, I launched a new iteration of my philanthropic consulting practice. As part of the new company, I moved into new office space that needed to be furnished. I do not enjoy shopping; still I found myself spending days on end trying to decide on desks, a conference table, paint colors, carpeting, countertops and more.

At night, I would search design sites on the web, where I became fascinated with a hand-printed poster by a London-based printmaker. In black block letters the poster read – “Work Hard and Be Nice to People.” It became my first purchase for the new company.

Those words are come to mind when I think about a lesson I learned from JJ. Yes, JJ was passionate about his work. Yes, he felt a strong sense of responsibility to make a difference. He knew he had to work hard. At the same time, he never forgot that to do his work well, he had to care not just about humanity, but about individuals.

Two memories exemplify this quality. First, I have an image of JJ sitting around a Shabbat table at a mutual friend’s home. He was so curious about the people around him – asking them questions, beaming his bright smile. He exuded kindness and warmth and people wanted to be in his presence because of that.

The second memory is at an airport, leaving a JFN conference in the spring of 2002. JJ and I found ourselves in the same terminal and decided to sit together before our flights took off. As we spoke, I noticed he was still wearing his conference nametag and suggested he take it off. No, I remember him saying, it was not his conference nametag, but one he had been wearing in New York on 9/11.

After the horrible events of that day, New York was like a small town, where people looked out for each other. Wearing his nametag, he explained, extended that feeling. People would call out his name, talk to him on trains, smile when they saw his badge. It was a conversation starter and JJ wanted to make sure he would be there for people who felt alone and needed to talk, people who needed consolation and a connection with another person.

JJ was nice to people. He was compassionate and generous. That seems like an obvious way to act, but the reality is that when we sit in positions of power at foundations, it is easy to harden ourselves against the barrage of needs and requests, and to forget that our power is derivative of someone else’s money instead of a result of our own importance. In these settings, the harder choice is to remain open and kind. JJ, though, found that easy to do.

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