Community activist, international spy swapper and hostage mediator, political mastermind, mentor for troubled teens, beloved camp director and dedicated Jew.
The last text we got from Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, two days before his death on Wednesday, January 20th, was a photo of him and a friend, up to their necks in the sunny blue waters of a Miami swimming pool. Rabbi Greenwald was radiating his trademark ebullience, and the picture was cheekily captioned, “It’s 16 degrees in Monsey.”
It was to that photo that my mind inevitably drifted when we received the shocking news of his untimely passing. For it encapsulates so much of what made him unique and so very beloved – the slightly rakish insouciance, the unwillingness, or even inability, to stay within the neatly defined borders of convention, the sense of fun that made his chronological age of 82 appear like part of the joke, and the infectious joie de vivre that seemed to include the entire world in its orbit.
Equal parts James Bond and revered mentor to thousands, in the unlikely guise of a rumpled Orthodox Brooklyn Jew with an offbeat sartorial sense, Rabbi Greenwald’s credentials – community activist, political mastermind, mentor for troubled teens, creative camp director, international spy swapper and hostage mediator – strain at the confines of cliché. The most cursory Google search will take the reader on a breathtaking geopolitical tour spanning decades.
Following a stint as a campaign aide to New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, he served as Richard Nixon’s liaison to the Jewish community prior to the 1972 election. After Nixon was re-elected, Rabbi Greenwald was given a Washington office with a White House phone number, thus ensuring that his calls would always be answered. He used his newfound clout with the Departments of Agriculture, Housing, Labor, and Education for the benefit of the needy and the underserved within the Jewish community. “I would bring groups to Washington to meet senators and congressmen, to prove to them that we also had a needy underclass. I had to counter the stereotype of the rich Jew,” he told me in a 2012 interview in his Monsey home, whose walls were studded with letters and photos of the rabbi with presidents and politicians.
Along with family portraits, he was also pictured with many prominent and revered rabbis within the Orthodox community. “There’s barely arosh yeshiva (yeshiva dean) or chassidic rebbe I would meet,” recalled a son in his eulogy Wednesday night, “who, upon learning who my father was, wouldn’t tell me, ‘You have no idea what your father did for me.'”
Although he left government to pursue a business career after Nixon’s impeachment, Rabbi Greenwald maintained all his high-level government contacts.
“Even though at this point I was a private citizen, wherever I went, governments knew that I had U.S. government backing. But everything was always through back channels; it all had to be kept quiet and secret until the job was done. If you really want to help people, that’s the only way. Publicity is dangerous and is always going to arouse opposition.”
Seeking to avoid the limelight, he was content to leave headline-making to others, although the unspoken rule did not preclude his eventual participation in high-stakes clandestine rescue operations. An early success was the release of Miron Marcus, an Israeli national living in Rhodesia whose private plane was shot down over Mozambique, where he was imprisoned in solitary confinement until Rabbi Greenwald’s appearance on the first night of Passover, the culmination of months of diplomatic maneuvering.
He was also a key figure in negotiating the freedom of Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, as well as that of molecular biologist Vladimir Raiz and his wife Carmela. He was successful in procuring improved living conditions for Lori Berenson, an American Jew imprisoned in Peru, and in brokering the liberation of Raul Granados, who was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas in Guatemala City. As well, he was often an articulate spokesman defending Orthodox interests before a sometimes hostile American media.
During a September 1997 visit to Lithuania along with a delegation of rabbis, Rabbi Greenwald embarked on negotiations with the Lithuanian government that culminated in the release and burial of several desecrated Torah scrolls. A day before the burial, he was invited to address the Lithuanian Parliament. As Lithuanian law prohibited burial of religious objects, Rabbi Greenwald explained the Jewish perspective to the legislature, and convinced them to ratify an exception to their statute, which they dubbed the “Grinvaldis Law”. Having lobbied on behalf of Lithuania’s inclusion in NATO, he was successful in intervening with that country’s Prime Minister to prevent the razing of the Jewish cemetery of Vilnius, the site of which had been slated for a shopping mall.
Although he was a larger than life figure within the community for his political connections and the scope of his activities – including an unlikely stint as ambassador from the African bantustan of Bophuthatswana to the United States – his unique genius lay in his ability to find the spark of Godliness within every single human being he met, thus empowering many who had lost faith in themselves to reclaim their humanity. Founder and director of a girl’s camp, Camp Sternberg, for over 50 years, he was visionary in his incorporation of a division for special-needs children within the camp, thus training and sensitizing hundreds of girls through hands-on acts of kindness and caring with this challenged population.
And, of course, there were the “adopted” children – scores of kids over the decades who found themselves in need of a place to go, to whom Rabbi Greenwald and his remarkable wife Miriam opened their doors, and provided a loving home, for months, and sometimes for years. As one of their children reminisced at the second funeral held in Jerusalem, “I would come home from yeshiva, and find new siblings in the house. I became, over the years, a brother and an uncle to so many.”
The stories are legion – the children society gave up on whom he refused to abandon, knocking on doors until he got them readmitted to school, found them employment, married them off, mentored them as their own families grew.
His son recalled the time his father was blackballed by some zealots within the community who disapproved of the rabbi’s methods and activities. “My father got the sweetest revenge. He supported some of their children for years, and got their grandchildren accepted into yeshivas when nobody wanted to take them in. He got revenge his way.”