Sharing Memories of JJ Greenberg

by Blu and Yitz Greenberg

Sometimes it is hard to be a Jewish professional. JJ’s path into this role was particularly rocky. He began as a volunteer advisor to Jewish teenagers at NCSY (Orthodox youth movement), then at Jewish Public School Youth (JPSY), a startup organization, and professionally at Bais Ezra, a home for developmentally disabled young Jews.

JPSY was particularly challenging. It was founded by a brilliant, charismatic young rabbi whose goal was to reach out to teenagers from non-affiliated Jewish families attending public schools. JJ started work part-time at JPSY and quickly moved up the ladder – only to discover that the founder was hitting on teenage girls drawn into the JPSY orbit. The discovery was painful, and confronting a dynamic, dominating father figure daunting. Making it more difficult were the denials by the charismatic rabbi and a Board that hesitated to take a teenagers’ word against a powerful religious leader.

The Board also feared that JPSY would not survive losing its dynamo. Those were years when some Orthodox institutions chose to cover – not cleanse – such abuses. But JJ and his peers stood fast and the founder left. The organization went into crisis. In picking up the pieces, JJ became its Executive Director. But JPSY could not overcome the loss of its key figure and fundraiser. It finally closed down. Over the last year, JJ did not draw a salary, insisting that the others be paid with whatever monies came in.

At the age of 27, he felt himself to be a failure. He struggled for almost two years and considered going into another field. He was torn between his love for Jews and Judaism and his deep hurt and feelings of failure that he had not saved JPSY. The standoff ended when Michael Steinhardt offered him a job as Executive Director to form the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

At JLN/SF, JJ worked at doing all the things he had tried at JPSY: creating dynamic programs that would attract Jews to come closer to Judaism; and spreading the joy of being Jewish. He never panicked about Jewish continuity; he was convinced that sharing incredible life values, rich experiences and bonding friendships could meet any competition out there for identity and loyalty. He loved Israel and personally experienced its effect upon himself and upon his friends. He trusted that experience, and when we initiated birthright Israel, he convinced us that 10 days – the maximum affordable length – would be enough to create a life-transforming experience and a deep bond with the Jewish state.

Most of all, JJ loved and respected people. He was interested in them – just about everyone he met. He was overjoyed to help and felt fulfilled in nurturing them. He learned from and absorbed kindness from others in return. He believed that Jewish communal professionals could be the leaders of a Jewish Renaissance, one that would create and sustain a community of meaning and loving-kindness.

We feel that nothing could be more in his spirit than this award, which honors young, dedicated, high-quality leaders who share the Jewish vision and strive to shape a humane community of meaning. Nothing can take away the bitter loss of JJ, but knowing that people of such caliber are carrying on in his way is a source of great comfort and hope. We thank the past awardees for this booklet. It is yet another way in which their own excellence and caring honor his memory.