This is an archive of the "memories" page spanning the dates:
December 1, 2002 - February 28, 2003
To return to the most current memories page please click on the memories button at the left.
February 10, 2003
It has been a number of months now since the tragedy that took JJ from all of us. I had started writing something to be posted on this site at least a dozen times and it seemed that nothing I could put on paper would do JJ the proper justice and honor he deserves, here is my attempt.
I met JJ about 10 maybe 12 years ago or so through mutual friends and
acquaintances on the Upper West Side. Over the years we spent many winter
weekend ski trips and summer weekends in the Hamptons together. JJ was
my friend. To all that knew him his death is such a huge blow. We still
can not believe it. How can it be that he is gone? There are very few
pure souls like JJ, how can God take away people like him, they are so
few and we need them? Clearly JJ was not with us long enough.
January 11, 2003
JJ Greenberg and Shlock Rock
J.J. Greenberg was one of my closest friends. He believed in me and my music. Since his passing last Fall I have been silent, as I did not really want to air my feelings in public. A lot of people said to me "you have to write a song", but that did not sit well with me. I did not want to make my relationship with JJ into a song. Nor did I want to turn him into a cartoon character or one of my Shlock Rock pieces of memorabilia. He was a special friend and I wanted to digest his memories and live with the fact that he would no longer be visiting me on his many trips to Israel or making cameo appearances at one or two concerts. Finally, enough time has passed that I can sit down and write about JJ and his relationship with me.
JJ was one of many people that I met back in the 80's who did things
his way. He had energy, creativity and a love of life that transcended
any negativity that got in his way. I think that is what drew us together
and is what drew him to the band. It was 1986 and I was in my second year
as music director of JPSY. JJ was an advisor and he was hanging out with
David Winter and Allen Krasna. Rabbi Brian Thau was also involved as were
many stars of Jewish Communal Life today. What was amazing about our relationship
is that we took the world around us and combined it with Judaism in our
everyday life. There was no better organization at that time than the
Jewish Public School Youth Movement. We would take a kid off the street
who had either a negative or an apathetic feeling towards Judaism and
make them feel positive. We used skits from Saturday Night Live which
were adapted to being Jewish and we used Movies such as the Blues Brothers.
We used music, specifically Shlock Rock songs as that was the curriculum
for JPSY kids. There was nothing that was off limits. The key was make
them feel good about being Jewish because if they felt
I would say to JJ and the guys all the time that there needs to be a profession for you guys. They were not musicians but they were the most charismatic, creative individuals in the field of Informal Jewish Education I had ever met. Allen Krasna and David "Dr D" Winter along with JJ were the greatest. And they contributed to my band in every way possible. Writing songs and skits which appeared on albums, performing on albums and on stage were all things these guys did regularly. As the years went by JJ moved into professional communal service work but never left the band. He was always interested and always involved in my creative endeavors. He would tell me if he loved stuff and would also tell me if he felt I should have gone in a different direction. But he was there and he was involved.
He had great shticks. I had the annoying habit (still do) of chewing my pens. In his apartment he would have a pen that I had chewed and it was taped to the wall with a sign that said "The King's Pen". If I ever asked him for a pen when we were on the street he pulled out his toothbrush first, then he took out a pen which actually did not have a pen inside. Finally I would get the pen on the third try. I would watch him have four fluffer-nutter sandwiches at a time. Even though he was a vegetarian he still made food fun. He would come driving up to my house in the passenger seat. Now that would be fine if there was a driver. But there was no one in the driver's seat. JJ had such long legs he could reach the gas and breaks from the passenger side. That scared the daylights out of me. He would buy cars that stuck out as well. He had two great convertibles that he would drive everywhere. The ultimate non-conformist but the ultimate good person. In the video Minyan Man we actually used one of his convertibles in the film. Whether it was 12 PM or midnight he was there for me.
When I got married he immediately became friendly with my wife and treated my girls like they were his own. He would come over to visit us in Israel without fail every trip. He would give them beanie babies and even had an exact list of every beanie baby the kids had. He had them on his last trip to Israel but sadly the girls got them after his unveiling.
JJ was life personified. He was happy and ambitious. He was determined
to make a difference and he did not let red tape get in the way of his
job. His job was to make people happy and he did it better than most.
Hashem had other plans for him and I know he is making people happy up
there as well and I am sure that he is still fighting for truth justice
and the kosher way. JJ We Love you!
January 9, 2003
With so many summers and chagim spent together, there are many good memories of JJ. Two come to mind that I would like to share.
Poor JJ, as one of the younger, less able athletes in the group, he was always picked on. Moshe, David, Naava, Debra and I managed to get JJ no matter how he tried to defend himself against the big guys. Goody and Devori were usually off doing their own thing and JJ decided he could dance with the wolves so he got soaked time after time.
One day, JJ proved smarter than the rest of us. Rather than getting the hose, which he knew would be stolen out of his hands, or more pots and pans from the kitchen, he found ammunition that made him undefeatable. In the heat of the summer, he donned his brown winter SNORKLE JACKET WITH A HOOD lined with fake fur, and covered himself in his waterproof coat. The style of snorkle jacket in that day zipped up the neck so his face had breathing holes with the gray fake fur surrounding it.
I remember the picture vividly. JJ in his winter jacket, with no shoes on, appearing naked beneath the coat, running after us big guys to finally get us back. He was not scared anymore. He was invincible.
This was just one sign of JJ's creative thinking and problem solving. It was typical JJ willing to dance with the wolves, and it was JJ who outsmarted the big guys with the simplest solution.
After the show, JJ came over again. Before saying goodbye, he pulled out a tiny piece of paper (two inches by two inches) from his pocket. He asked me all the kids names and ages. I told him and he wrote them down. I noticed the paper was jam packed with tiny writing all over it. I wondered what he wanted it for and so I asked. JJ gave me one of his sweet, innocent, smiles and said, "I just like to keep track of everyone".
I must admit, at the time I thought it was sweet and unusual that he would want to write my kids names and ages down on a piece of paper, and then put it in his pocket. At JJ's funeral I suddenly understood there was a mystical, spiritual, JJ who liked to track his friends and their offspring. I understood JJ was a collector of data and he sent birthday cards, get well cards and phoned when he had spare moments in airports. It was only at JJ's untimely death that I learned of his hobby to collect and track information.
Ironically, JJ's database is a collection of people his soul touched
in his lifetime.
Tali Frank Horwitz
January 8, 2003
I wrote my first part of growing up with JJ a few weeks after JJ A'h death. I wanted to write about my experiences with JJ when we became "older" and "wiser".
I headed to YU for College and JJ went off to Israel to study at BMT. During that year I got involved with Yeshiva University Seminars and Torah Leadership Seminars. When JJ got back he jumped in head first to help Jewish kids learn about and love being Jewish. In my Junior year of College I headed off to Israel and lo and behold JJ was back in Israel and he had an apartment in JERUSALEM. CAN YOU SAY PARTY? I had some of my most amazing Jerusalem experiences with J. Like going to Angel's at 12 o'clock at night because JJ had to have the freshest bread. It gave him real pleasure. My Yom Haatzmaut celebration with JJ was quite unique. He was a master bopper with those ridiculous hammer boppers (or whatever they were called). We also went to JJ's yeshiva . NO One spoke English that was ok no one spoke Hebrew either !! This was a kiruv yeshiva that took in european guys and a few brits(they don't really speak English -just joking calm down !) . I believe that I had Purim Seudah with JJ (it was my second day of Purim as I was in KBY and totally inebriated for the first day so why not go for two?) but I am not really sure where I ate that night but I did wind up... you guessed it in JJ's apartment.
When I got back from Israel I finished YU undergrad and started Semicha. I became close friends with another great friend of JJ ( alot of my friends today are somehow conected back to J) David Winter. Dave and I ran NY rEuropeanhe other guys thought they ran it!) in my Senior year of YU. The next year I went to Lincoln Square and who was my teamate David Winter. Whenver I ran a program Dave and I always wanted JJ a part of our program as JJ was the excitement and the life of the party. When I started LSS JPSY had already become really big and JJ became a real Kiruv leader. JJ was everywhere helping Jewish teens see how cool it was to be Jewish. When Dave left LSS he went to work with JJ at JPSY. I also continued to help with my Jpsy chapter in Riverdale. JJ helped me there also. Not so much in Kiruv as much as he helped through a rough time trying to balance my kiruv obligations and the friendships that developed from JPSY. It was tough sometimes I had to make tough decisions and people were mad at me. JJ stuck by me, he defended me and he tried to have them see where I was coming from.
After two years as a kiruv cowboy I decided that if I wanted to get semicha I had better go to Israel to learn at the Gruss Kollel. I saw JJ all the time (I'm not exactly sure why he kept coming back but again who cared I loved him and any time I could see him was awesome. Dave went to Detroit for a while. Towards the end of my first year at Gruss I got engaged and of course I called JJ. There was a pure Joy a total happiness for me . He was my Brother. It was then that I asked JJ to be an Usher at my wedding. August 24 1989. JJ put on a show . He came all the way back from glouster ( Dave Winter dove back from Detroit) juggling, dancing, roller blading, dancing with a cupon his head (attached to his head!). He was again the life of the party. I even sang Aishet Chayil with JJ toothbrush as a microphone (look at my wedding album!).
We (Devorah and I) then went back to Israel for my second year at Gruss. Same thing JJ kept popping up . We then went to LA and you guessed it JJ popped up again . He had relatives the Hulkowers and he came for a simcha. After a couple of years of Beautiful weather we had a brain Spasm and came back to the Jungle called NY. I Became the Associate Rabbi Ohab Zedek aka OZ the hoppingest shul for singles and kiruv. Who was my first phone call for help? JJ my second Dr D.(Dave Winter) The kiruv cowboys were back and now with adults. Some of the "sophisticated west siders" didn't want JJ and Dave to do their shtick but I knew it was their ruachthat would create excitement and bring Jews back more than any sophisticated d'var torah (however important). I was proud that through my developing the kiruv organization that I brough in JJ and dave. Even when I took on other responsibilities at OZ and passes on the kiruv assignmnet to others, JJ and Dave remained involved. JJ started to teach classes in Hebrew. They were one of the most popular classes. People wanted to be near JJ.
When I moved back to Riverdale I didn't get to see JJ all that much. It was tough . If I got lucky I would see him for second at the Genauer's or coming out of 611 (the building I grew up in and the building of my revered teacher Rabbi Genauer ZZ"L and his wonder Aishet Chayil Sylvia (may she have continued good health and long life). As my family grew JJ did manage to always make it to simchas. When Yori was born he bought my bechor (first born) a tee shirt that said on the back Thau. It was cool. It was simple. It was thoughtful. It was meaningful . It was JJ. My kids knew JJ as Uncle JJ and they all wanted to sing with Lenny like JJ and Dave. We moved to our rented house in North Riverdale and I saw JJ less. I begged him that we needed to just do something fun. JJ did not have time for fun. He was on a mission. We're on A mission from God he used to say (like the Blues Brothers ! -Hey did I ever tell you that my cousin was the producer of the blues brothers?). We moved to our first home and JJ was there to share in our Joy.
One of the last things that I told JJ was that I had become a Principal of Hillel Academy and I was planning on him and David coming up to Fairfield, to meet the students, turn them on to Judaism and help us get some much needed funding. He said that I could count on it . He and Dave would be there to help me and another dear friend of JJ Harav Shalom Baum (who I became close friends with because of JJ). JJ was thrilled for me.
I would like to end this with some words of comfort. I hope that I will have the Honor to eulogise my brother sometime in the future, but until then I would like to end by sharing a Torah/homiletical thought about this beautiful Neshoma.
I believe that around 10 years after we got married JJ finally bought us a wedding gift. We love it and we use it all the time. It is a challah cover from Israel. How appropriate. The Challah cover is used only on Shabbat, according to the homiletical interpretation, to not embarass the challah as the kiddush over the wine would go first replacing the usual most important food, the bread . JJ was like the challah cover. He was always happy for others to have the spot light and to cover others and protect them so they would not feel slighted or hurt. He was our cover. Our cover has been taken away from us. Our friend is gone but not our memories of the most beautiful midot a Jew could ever have. I pray that I will live up to his conduct and I always ask myself now: What would JJ do in this situation? Yhi Zichro Baruch.
Rabbi Brian Thau
January 4, 2003
My wife Lisa Zahner and I met JJ at his friend and classmate Ariel Kronman's house. It was his insistence on announcing himself by nametag - "Hello, my name is JJ" - and his explanation for doing so (to make NYC into a smaller, friendlier place after 9/11) that delighted us both. We only got to see him a few times - that evening, and a couple other times when he stopped by our upper west side rooftop for parties - but we treasure our memory of him.
He told us that we should be sure to be parents, and now we are - but alas, Owen was not born in time to meet him.
JJ's love for others and exuberance are an example for us for the rest of our lives. The Greenberg family should know how far and wide he is remembered, and what a difference he has made in the world.
January 3, 2003
In July of last year, JJ served as the Cohen at the pidyon ha-ben of our son, Samuel. We were honored when JJ volunteered to serve as Sam's kohen. Not only was he was a friend of my wife, Felicia (and her boss - with JJ, there existed no tension between the two roles) from Jewish Life Network, but, over the short period that we had known him, we had quickly come to understand the ways in which he lived and quietly but powerfully represented the best aspects of Judaism: kindness, generosity of spirit, and ahavat Israel.
In the weeks leading up to the pidyon, JJ was openly pleased and excited about the event. He often joked that since Sam was, technically, his baby, he'd be happy to take him home and raise him if we decided we weren't interested. He appeared at our apartment on the day of the Pidyon and announced that he had brought his own Baby Bjorn, "just in case." After all the time he had devoted to his many nieces and nephews over the years, he said, his brothers and sisters owed him a few diaper changes. We laughed-but because it was JJ, we actually almost believed him. The joy he took from this new Jewish life was so palpable, and he was so comfortable with the baby-more comfortable than we were after only four weeks of experience-that we wondered if he weren't just a little bit serious. (He may have been-Felicia told me later that JJ had mentioned once that his goal in life was to stay home raising his kids.)
The event itself was very emotional for us. Our principal sensation that day was one of releasing our son, giving him over spiritually - fragile and vulnerable as he was - into the hands of the Jewish people and the Jewish spirit, as embodied by JJ. What a difficult thing to relinquish control of our precious newborn - but what a beautiful job JJ did. With assurance, erudition, humor, and, above all, joy, he redeemed Sam and, lovingly, drew him one step further into the Jewish community. As Sam's parents, we felt, above all, an overwhelming sense of trust - that this kohen, who for the moment had complete control over our son and his little spirit, was elevating him into a Jewish moment, into the Jewish people.
That day, JJ, in his customary unassuming way, did a magnificent service to our son and our family. His humility, his assurance, and his joyfulness elevated our spirits and brought honor to the institution of the kohen. We feel great sorrow that Sam will not grow up with JJ as his friend, but we take some comfort in knowing that Sam's spiritual life will always be linked to JJ's worthy and honorable memory.
David Ben-Ur and Felicia Herman
December 26, 2002
As I sit here, it is December 26th, my office is very quiet, and I realize that even now, months later, I am having a hard time writing about JJ. I ask myself why, particularly since I had seen JJ only once in the last 10 years. The answer is that time has not diminshed the impact that JJ left on my life, and that what he had to give will be carried with me for a lifetime. The sense of loss, of something beeing missing, is still fresh. I offer then a few of my own memories, and hope that others will read them, understand, and smile.
I knew JJ as one of my advisors, and very much at the heart and soul of JPSY. I came into JPSY with no real religious background, other than knowing that I was Jewish. I came to my first Big Bash Weekend with only one other prior encounter with JPSY, and knowing only my best friend, Rachel. I was also very into acting back then, and came with the bold pronouncement that theater was my "real" religion, questioning brutally just about every idea or concept put in my path that weekend. I had also, despite my obviously tenuous connections to Judaism, already committed to starting a JPSY chapter at my high school. It made me a favorite target of many advisors that weekend, trying hard to convince me of the wisdom of what I was doing. JJ had a different approach. He simply made sure I was involved in the weekend, experiencing Judaism first hand, and let me know that my feelings and questions had a place there, however outrageous they may have been. I came away from that first shabbatone having had a great time, and knowing that somehow, I was bringing home much more than good memories - somehow, my religion had come to matter to me, and all because this one person had the simple wisdom to let me "be".
Fast forward to about a year and a half later. The Sheepshead Bay HS chapter of JPSY is alive and well, and nothing is more exciting to me than the thought of another shabbatone. I now very much identify with Judaism and JPSY, so much so that years later people I barely remember from my high school still remember & associate me with both. I look forward to seeing JJ at these events, knowing that my (still) outrageous questions will always find a home & encouragement there, and that my quirkiness and sarcastic sense of humor are appreciated, because they are the essence of me - and JJ appreciated everyone for being who they are. On this particular occasion, JPSY is going ice-skating, post shabbos. I love to skate, the feeling of being on ice as close to flying as I'll ever know. I'm very self absorbed at this point, and don't realize I have an audience. One that is, in fact, trying to get my attention - by following me around the rink, swatting at me with his scarf, just missing several times before I finally notice and turn around to see who it is....and, completely exasperated upon seeing JJ, promptly fall straight onto the ice, breaking the fall with my knee caps. I've never seen JJ apologize so profusely - not only because I had gotten hurt, but because the devilish gleam in my eyes foretold the sarcastic teasing that would be coming his way for this one. He was still looking sheepish but quite amused at my still bruised knees two weeks later as he handed me the award for JPSY chapter of the year - proud, too, to have seen me come so far in my religious idenitification, although he had enough sense not to say it out loud and embarass my proud teenaged self. I never did find out what it was that he wanted on the ice that night.
Fast forward many years later, long after JPSY has since dissolved, and my questions have found a home at the Brooklyn College Judaic Studies department. An old friend from JPSY has re-established contact with me, having wanted to let me know that a piece of music he had written for me in high school has now made an appearance on an actual album of his friend, and I have come to see them perform. I have, however, not come alone - my boyfriend, (now my husband) Danny has come with me. Danny is Chinese and Puerto Rican, and most would make the correct assumption upon meeting him that he is also not Jewish. A bit later, JJ comes in, and I am simultaneously suprised to see him, happy - because it's been several years, and anxious. My relationship with Danny is still on the newer side, and I am feeling tentative about what JJ might say. I should have known much, much better by then. He met Danny with grace and acceptance, and without question.
That absolute acceptance of Danny's presence in my life at such a critical point made a world of difference. We are married four years now (it's been almost 10 years since we started dating), and expecting our first child in April. The role of Judaism is strong in our home, and the faith in which our child will be raised, including involvement in temple - a strong religious identification that I did not grow up with. I did not know then that it was to be the last time I would see JJ. Typical of him, I went home that night bearing much more than I came with - the faith in myself and my religion to do what was right for me, and knowing that those who truly cared would find acceptance in their hearts for my choices. It has kept my roots in Judaism, when they might otherwise have found a home elsewhere. It is a legacy that will forever live with me, and that I look forward to passing on.
But JJ...I'm so horribly sorry that you're not here to do the teaching yourself.
December 24, 2002
Our family wishes to thank you to all of you who visit the website, some of you on a regular basis. [In a separate email, we have written to those who have posted letters.] We appreciate the love you feel for JJ, z"l, and for remembering him with such deep feelings.
During the past several weeks, we have heard many inspiring and funny stories about JJ. We did not manage to get these down on paper but would like to savor them. If you have a story or memory of JJ and are more comfortable speaking than writing, please call us. [ 718-548-4211 ]. We shall be missing him for the rest of our lives, and any opportunity to laugh or cry about his special life is a source of comfort to us and to everyone who loved him. In addition, a book about JJ has been commissioned by a foundation and we wish to connect the author, William Novak, to these stories.
We also want to add our own stories and hardly know where to begin. Each time I take up a pen, I see how challenging it is to write for there is so much to say. JJ savored life to the fullest. In the midst of our sorrow, we are struggling to focus on the celebration of his life and not on tragedy and loss.
In that spirit, and since some have referred to it in their posting and others have asked it came to be, I'll begin my first website posting with the story of JJ's trademark sweatband. In the larger scheme of things, the sweatband seems of little significance. But it is a distinctive association many have with JJ, and it symbolizes a truth about his life: that all of its different parts were integrated - his joie de vivre; his kindness; his love of people; and his joy at being Jewish.
JJ first put on his sweatband at age 81/2, the summer of 1973. It began harmlessly enough, during a routine family errand to Tuck's Pharmacy in Rockport, Mass. At the checkout counter, he spotted a pile of sweat bands. There were two bands in each cellophane pack, all identical, three wide stripes of orange, white and blue. [You can see it in the photo labeled 'original sweatband'.] He wanted a pack so I bought one for him.
On the way home, Deborah noticed his sweatbands and asked for one. JJ complained that Deborah wouldn't really wear hers and that he would; also that he needed both, one for each wrist, etc. But she persisted, and his protests of 'not fair' fell on deaf ears. Reluctantly, he parted with one band, making a bet with her that he would wear his the longest.
I don't know when JJ decided that he would never take off his sweatband, because in this, as in many other recurrent practices in his life, he never openly declared his intentions. During that summer he got to like wearing it, and it settled into his fixed routine. He slept with it, swam with it and showered with it, setting the pattern for the next 27 years. Over the years, the sweatband got stretched out and frayed, and several times I stitched it right on his wrist since, by then, it was understood that he would not take it off.
The sweatband did not take over his life, but he guarded it fiercely when challenged. David holds the distinction of being the only person to have worn it simultaneously with JJ, sticking his arm through alongside JJ's. I think it was a peaceful encounter, and probably a moment of pride for JJ since he idolized his big brothers, but I don't actually recall the event and perhaps I was fortunate not to be there at that moment.
This, however, I do remember. When JJ was 10 or 11, Moshe and David threatened to cut off the sweatband in the middle of the night. The threat evaporated when I announced that whoever cut off JJ's sweatband in the middle of the night would be getting a haircut in the middle of the night.
At any rate, the band became increasingly worn and by the time he was 12 or 13 , it had already been stitched up a dozen times, so he covered it for protection. JJ had style: white covers for Shabbat, and colored ones to match his weekday shirts. He gave his 'cover' sweatbands to friends or to little kids who wanted one, so he must have purchased a good number during those 27 years, but the original one stayed on all the time. As far back as twenty years ago, we kidded about writing to the Guinness book of records.
Here is the poignant, almost surreal end, to the story. Immediately after the accident on September 13th, JJ was taken directly to Hillel Jaffe Hospital in Hadera where his personal effects were removed, [among them his phone-less cord around the ankle]. Somehow, they missed the sweatband. Two hours later, he was transferred to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. Nothing could be done to save his life. The next morning, the 14th, he was prepared for organ donation. Only after those surgeries were complete and life support withdrawn, did Goody and David remove the tattered threads of orange, white and blue from his wrist. In a sense, his trademark sweatband survived him. In his lifetime, he never took it off.
What was this all about? Surely the sweatband had no significance when he first got it, just another of a thousand treats kids get during the course of their childhood. Deborah recalls that originally he wanted two bands because a Marvel Comics hero he liked wore one on each wrist to gain superpowers. Gradually, the sweatband became uniquely his own, his special mark in a big family where a 4th child probably needs some special markers. And surely he enjoyed the attention it brought to him: early on, friends - and that always included extended family - thought it was cool. The sweatband was fun.
But why did he not outgrow it, say at 18 or 25 or 35, as he began to build a personal reputation for professionalism, maturity and dignity? And what did this playful item come to symbolize or mean to him? To our great regret, we never asked. We simply took it for granted. And now there are a thousand other questions about meaning we would have liked to ask JJ, for only after his death - and in part from the stories and memories of others - did we begin to put together the many different parts of his life and come to understand them in a way that parents simply don't understand about their children from up close.
JJ had an enormous capacity for tolerating difference in people, for accepting them as they were. He appreciated difference. And his own idiosyncratic behaviors - some of which we tried unsuccessfully to get him to give up - attested to his feeling that people, in general, ought to be able to do their own thing and not worry excessively about what other people think.
But more than that perhaps, the sweatband and other JJ 'things'' represent a defining aspect of his life: his genuine love for people. We were aware that JJ had many friends and were privileged to know many of them. But we truly had no idea of the extent, depth and sustained nature of his relationships. Somewhere along the way, possibly in his teens or twenties, he came to understand - not articulate but rather experience - that his sweatband served as a connector to others. It could make someone laugh and feel comfortable; or draw a child out of a quiet or shy place; or bring a person into his life with an initial inquiry; or serve as a hook of familiarity in an ongoing relationship. It has been striking to us how many people have reported that they made their first entry into JJ's world of Judaism through curiosity or a chuckle about his sweatband or his inside-out t shirts.
In retrospect then, the sweatband and phone-less cord and gray raincoat and size 44x shorts and Sach watch and Russian military coat and flying tzitzit and name tag and a dozen other 'JJ items' were multi-layered. True, they were charming and colorful identifiers, but in a deeper sense, they were about JJ wanting his life to be bound up with other people's lives. All of these things were really about you -- about his relationship with you and his great joy at having you in his life.
December 20, 2002
Two vivid memories I have of JJ that demonstrate the kind of person he was occurred at a retreat for high school sophomores called Sophomore Seminar. At this gathering, JJ was an advisor, and I was a high school sophomore. The seminar's purpose was to educate high school kids about the different aspects of Judaism in a fun, interesting way.
One advisor who really stood out in a positive way was JJ Greenberg. Since I grew up in the same community as JJ, classmates from my school and other schools told me they thought JJ was such a good, cool guy, and with high school students the two adjectives did not necessarily go hand-in-hand. They could not believe he was modern Orthodox in his observance. During the three-day seminar, JJ was able to interact with and attract kids from different religious backgrounds. Even the kids who had no interest in Judaism participated in the programs when JJ encouraged them to do so, and they did so willingly, especially if JJ ran the program. JJ approached people on their own level; he knew how to talk to each person and relate to that individual. He brought Judaism to each individual person, and made Judaism and religious observance attractive to those whom he met. High schoolers can be a difficult age group with which to connect, but JJ broke through all barriers. He inspired the kids to pursue religious observance in a meaningful, fun way that would not be oppressive. JJ showed them that observance was a way to enhance life. JJ moved with ease within all circles and groups of Jews. He made it seem so easy, but that was JJ's gift.
During one of the programs at the seminar, everyone had been seated in the dining hall. JJ then made many people stand up, and he proceeded to have two lines of people face each other, with about forty people on each line. Nobody knew what was happening or what JJ was doing. I think the school faculty was a little concerned as well. JJ instructed the kids on each line to hold hands with the person facing them. Once that was accomplished, JJ went to the end of the line and told them when I land on your hands, throw me into the air and forward down the line. No one seemed to have any clue what JJ meant. Then JJ backed up about ten yards, and ran forward (or he may have roller skated) and dove into the air to land on the hands of the first people in the line. It worked! They threw him up into the air and forward. He went flying back into the air and came down on the hands of the next kids in the line, and in turn, they threw him upward and forward, letting JJ fly the entire way down. Everyone was laughing and having a great time. JJ was the life of the seminar, and he motivated others to act and live life fully.
Jonathan S. Glaser
December 11, 2002
JJ was a man with a lot of passion and love: he loved being Jewish, he loved (all) people, he loved Israel, he loved his work and he loved teaching. And JJ fulfilled his passion and love with hard work and strength by doing what is right, no matter it is big or small.
JJ taught Hebrew Alphabet Class at Makor. When I first saw his picture in the Makor brochure, I could not help to wonder how come this young and intelligent-looking man would spend one night each week to teach -- he could make good money easily and one night would be well needed for his own life in a busy city like New York. Then I saw him in person. He surprised me with another two things. First, he was so Jewish, from his Kepah, to his talk and manner. Second, he was so balanced, between the emotions that every New Yorker was struggling with at that time (October 2001) and his pleasant, warm and calm appearance; he was so balanced between the modern world and his 3,000 year old religion. And when I asked him to take 30 seconds to introduce himself since he had asked all students their stories, he said, "My parents are Americans. (?!) I studied in Israel at (?)grade. I am taking care of a foundation for the owner of this building. (and?) I love teaching, just love it. (!) OK, Enough about me. Let's start (the class)..." Although his introduction only caused me more questions, nevertheless, he was a great teacher. During the classes, he was skillful, patient and encouraging to everyone. He invited people to "take advantage of" him to ask any question anytime by using his home phone, office phone and e-mail address which were in the handout.
He always greeted everyone nicely when he or she walked in the classroom; he always stood by the door and said "good-bye" to everyone who was leaving after the class; he always cleaned up the tables (the used cups and leftover snack - the snack was provide by himself) after the class; he always stayed and waited for after-class-question, and he was always the last or among the last to leave the room. And that was always after a whole day work, and sometimes, "I have a meeting in my (Makor) office at 9:30(pm)."
In the last class of that term, JJ called it the graduation night, it was fun to look at his busyness and the programs he arranged. I remember these: after showing the class the tzitzit he was wearing when the word was read, after answering a phone call from his "Ema" (" I have to answer this, it is from my mother"), after telling the class "to honor your father and mother", after closing the door to stop the next class coming in, after inviting the Creative Director of Makor to give a "graduation speech", JJ presented a certificate to each student, accompanied by Shlock Rock music. Pictures were taken. When all were done, he was happy and satisfied.
JJ was so Jewish that everyone knew and saw and it was because all his conducts were strictly guided by his Jewish Teaching (which I did not know what exact they were at the beginning. And now, I am eager to learn all of them because simply they are the light of life), yet JJ was such a fun person with so much love to other humans.
JJ's love to others appeared in many ways: his tolerance, respect, patience, attention and his strength of doing what is right and helpful for others, including honest encouragement, real understanding and wise guidance. I wonder he ever said "can I help?" - he acted without asking. When I met JJ, I came for Jewish learning with nothing else but a wish, a wish to learn the truth about Jewish people and Judaism. In spite of at least 3 different cultures inside each of us (they were American, Israeli, and Jewish cultures in JJ, they were Chinese, European and some Christian cultures in me), in spite of the world we live in with so many "hidden languages"(for example, "yes" means "I don't know", "no" means "yes" and "OK" means "no"), with his strong Jewishness, in his special and gentle ways, JJ created a comfortable world for me to search, to think and to learn. I talked a lot and he always listened. "JJ, I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. It is one of the best museums I have ever visited. Look, I learned this from it: sometimes, when we are not doing what is right, we are doing what is wrong already..." "JJ, I watched a documentary... I realized that learning people is different from learning a book - people have feelings and experiences which should be well considered and respected ..." "JJ, ..." JJ was always there and listened attentively. He listened so well that he knew what I needed before I realized them myself. He trained me to be a better listener by putting all his answers and responses in one paragraph without order; he inquired my Hebrew studies, he guided me to balance myself by putting hope in Hashem's teaching and His promises; he introduced self-discipline and self-control through his Jewish Faith (and these qualities were exactly what I lack of).
JJ's love to Israel was natural and powerful, in other words, with no condition. Once he told me, "...please do not worry. I have been to Israel at the average of 2 to 3 times each year most of my life. In the past 3 years, most of the times were under Ďadvisory'..." To JJ, Israel was not only a place to "visit." It is his land. (In fact, isn't it a bad idea to say "it is dangerous" because one could not really explain what about the people who live there?) JJ's love to Israel is unshakable. When he came back from Israel, he was beaming, joyful and stronger. From knowing a little too little about Israel, now I learned and saw the beauty of Israel through JJ's eyes. As real as JJ's life, as real as JJ's strength, I know Israel is as beautiful as JJ believed. I was very touched by his passion to the land. I bear great respect for his parents who have done such a great job in raising such wonderful son. I told him once, " I wish one day I will look at Israel as the way you do, with love." JJ found himself strength through the teaching of Torah, he made himself capable to do what is right. And this may be the hope for Israel: claim her with love, courage and presence by her people.
JJ's strength will be always with me -- to do what is right, to live for what is worthwhile. And I thank the Master of the Universe for JJ in my life.
December 1, 2002
I clearly remember one of the last times I saw JJ. It was September 12th, 2001. Like so many other New Yorkers, I had somehow managed to pull myself out of a shocked stupor to drag myself down to the Red Cross Headquarters to see if there was anything I could do to help - or at least to try and stay busy enough to block out the nightmare.
After several hours there, I was finally assigned to assist in moving boxes of supplies off trucks and into the cavernous warehouse. There didn't seem to be anyone in charge. No one really had a clear idea of the most efficient way to move, sort or stack the boxes, and the process moved along slowly. It seemed to be somewhat of an exercise in futility, probably in large part because of the overwhelming sense of helplessness we were all experiencing.
After about half an hour, I saw a familiar figure - on roller skates. It was no surprise to me that in a time of crisis and need, JJ Greenberg should appear. He quickly took charge, assigning tasks, designating areas for each type of supply. Because he was on skates, he was able both to work twice as fast and to simultaneously oversee the progress - as well as to stop and chat with the other volunteers. I particularly was struck by not only by the leadership role he took on, but by his attitude - while obviously distraught, he still was JJ - smiling, ebullient, charismatic, filled with a joy and passion for life and a sense of love in helping others.
The last time I saw JJ was at the New Israel Fundraiser about a month and a half later - again in a setting that reflected his commitment to justice and compassion, as well as his ceaseless dedication to Judaism and to Israel.
It was with horror that a year and a day after I had seen him at the Red Cross I learned of the terrible accident. Once again the shocked stupor, the sense of loss, helplessness and useless sorrow.
I have known JJ since childhood. While we didn't see each other regularly, he was someone I always knew was around, whose presence was obvious even in his absence. His death is a tragedy not only for those who knew and loved him, but for the many he helped without ever knowing, the causes he gave himself fully to, and all those who otherwise might have crossed paths with him somewhere down the line.
JJ, we miss you and will never forget you. You have served as a role model and an inspiration, both in life and in death. The fact that you gave others life in your death speaks volumes of the sort of person you were and of the tremendous, immeasurable legacy you have left behind.
May your memory be a blessing.
With much love,
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