JJ Greenberg
In memory of JJ Greenberg


‘Like An Angel’ J.J. Greenberg, rising communal star

‘Like An Angel’ J.J. Greenberg, rising communal star

Jonathan Mark - Associate Editor

September 20, 2002

Jonathan Joseph (“J.J.”) Greenberg, 36, an ascendant star in Jewish communal service, died in Tel Aviv on Saturday, one day after being struck by a car while riding his bicycle. He was buried Tuesday in Jerusalem in a funeral attended by hundreds of mourners.

Mr. Greenberg, who lived in Manhattan, was struck Friday morning while riding with his brother David and a friend at Binyamina Junction, near Zichron Yaakov, in northern Israel. He was flown by helicopter to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he died the next day.

Mr. Greenberg served as executive director of the New York-based Jewish Life Network since its inception in 1995, where he helped develop such landmark programs as birthright israel; the Makor center on the Upper West Side; the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education; Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR); and the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership.

Working with JLN chairman Michael Steinhardt, and president Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, his father, Mr. Greenberg also helped oversee national programs in conjunction with Hillel and the Jewish Heritage Program, among others.

Colleagues praised Mr. Greenberg as much for his celestial soul as for his uncanny professional skills. Rhoda Weisman, Hillel’s chief creative officer, said Mr. Greenberg was “like an angel. He never saw anyone’s weakness as an end in itself. He just showered people with love and respect. He loved life with more passion than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Weisman pointed out the inherent holiness of his Shabbat death during the Days of Awe.

Coming on the eve of Yom Kippur and in such a swift and seemingly random way, Mr. Greenberg’s death cast a pall over many Jewish leaders and activists who knew him and were touched by his gentle but magnetic personality.

But visitors to his family home on Sunday, hours before Kol Nidre, found his parents graciously comforting others, warmly recalling the impact he had on relatives, friends and others. His father, a liberal Orthodox leader, noted that their initial four-month agreement to work together at the Jewish Life Network, at the request of Steinhardt, grew to seven years. His mother, Blu, an Orthodox feminist leader, said of all his roles, her son excelled as an uncle to his 14 nephews and nieces, finding special time for each of them.

“When he spoke to you,” said Moshe Bellows, a Manhattan attorney and Jewish activist, “it was just the two of you in the world. He’d always take the time to see what projects I was involved with and how he could assist. But if I ever thought I was doing a lot, I looked at J.J. and felt like I was standing still.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, said, “J.J. was a kind, sweet soul whose gentle sense of humor stood in contrast to his fierce sense of devotion to the Jewish people and to Israel.”

A contrast indeed, as his sly humor led him to after-hours stints with the Schlock Rock band of parodists; a rousing Elvis impersonation; and presenting himself as the “inventor” of the “phoneless cord,” or the “Sach-Watch,” with his oldest niece’s Sacha’s face in lieu of the clock’s. Mr. Greenberg would dance wildly for the bride and groom at weddings, then return to his humble demeanor.

While proud and protective of his famous parents, he was reluctant about exploiting their glory. On the contrary, one colleague, who came to Judaism as an adult, recalled that “J.J., despite coming from that special family, was so humble, saying his faith was less special than mine because he was born into a family like his, unlike those who chose Judaism, as did I.”

Mr. Greenberg was in Israel last week visiting the families of his sister and brother who lived there.

In many ways, Mr. Greenberg was the hub of the family, intimate with everyone, the go-to-guy for advice and help, relatives said. J.J., said his mother, was the inadvertent “star” of her well-known book, “How to Run A Traditional Jewish Household.” Written when Mr. Greenberg was just 15, Blu Greenberg reported that one reader, calculating when J.J. would turn 21, sent a letter asking: “Is J.J. still available? I’m interested.” She wasn’t the only one, but he never married.

Rabbi Greenberg said his son “could establish friendships with philanthropists and with every maintenance worker at Makor. He was interested in people, he wanted to hear their stories.” Ten years ago, Mr. Greenberg took six months to teach Hebrew in Estonia.

“We still get calls from people who still want to stay in touch with him,” Rabbi Greenberg said.

At the Jerusalem funeral, Rabbi Greenberg said that when he and his wife had children, they understood the risks involved. “And despite paying this ultimate cost,” said Rabbi Greenberg, “every single day with J.J. was an indescribable blessing.”

In the spirit of his generosity, five of Mr. Greenberg’s organs were donated for transplants, as he had requested.

Mr. Greenberg is survived by his parents; two brothers, David (and wife Mindy) and Moshe (and Abbie); two sisters, Deborah (and Jonathan) and Goody (and Eric); his grandmother, Sylvia Genauer; and 14 nieces and nephews. n

Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.