It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Rabbi Ronald Greenwald zt”l of Monsey, NY. A renowned mechanech,askan and advocate, Rabbi Greenwald earned the respect of Jews across the religious spectrum for his dedication to helping Jews whenever and wherever he could.
Born January 8, 1934, in New York City, “Ronnie,” as everyone knew him, made a career of spy trading, international hostage mediation, and other forms of high-stakes, high-intrigue diplomacy.
A one-man chessed organization, in Boro Park, in Monsey, at Camp Magen Avraham and Camp Sternberg, and working for many organizations and institutions, thousands of people benefited from the selflessness and care of Rabbi Greenwald.
Rabbi Greenwald was born to European Jewish immigrant parents and raised on the lower east side of Manhattan before his family relocated to Brownsville in Brooklyn. He studied at Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland after high school. After getting married, he settled in Boro Park and, the early years of his marriage, he worked as a rebbi and teacher in Brooklyn yeshivos.
Rabbi Greenwald became active in politics in 1962, at the age of 28, lobbying on behalf of Torah Umesorah to promote the creation and success of Jewish day schools in the United States. At the request of activist George Klein, Rabbi Greenwald became involved in the gubernatorial campaign of Nelson A. Rockefeller and helped Rockefeller win an unprecedented share of the Jewish vote for a Republican at the time. After this success, the Rockefeller campaign recommended Rabbi Greenwald to the campaign of Richard M. Nixon and the Nixon re-election campaign appointed Rabbi Greenwald to work for the President’s 1972 re-election in the Jewish community. In winning 35% of the Jewish vote in 1972, Nixon, like Rockefeller, did far better among Jewish voters than would be expected from a Republican in that era.
During the Nixon administration, Rabbi Greenwald served as liaison between the administration and the Jewish community in a variety of ways. He obtained a $1 million grant to open a legal aid office in Brooklyn to assist the needy in the community of Williamsburg among other accomplishments.
During the Watergate scandal, Rabbi Greenwald contacted various Democratic Jewish members of Congress, including Elizabeth Holtzman, Bella Abzug and Arlen Specter to try to convince them that impeaching the president would weaken the United States and, by extension, hurt Israel, which, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War needed the support of a strong United States. Although his entreaties did not work, as President Nixon was eventually forced to resign rather than face impeachment, he did earn a Presidential letter of thanks.
Rabbi Greenwald was involved in scores of release efforts for various prisoners from around the world.
In perhaps his highest profile case, Rabbi Greenwald worked closely with Representative Benjamin Gilman and East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel to secure the release Soviet dissident and Refusenik Natan Sharansky from Soviet prison in the late 1970s. He made more than 25 trips across the “Iron Curtain” to East Germany as part of that effort. The Rockland Journal News reported that Rabbi Greenwald was the “man behind the talks” that freed Sharansky.
In conjunction with Representative Gilman, Rabbi Greenwald negotiated the rescue a 24-year-old Israeli citizen named Miron Markus in 1978 who was living in Zimbabwe. Mr. Markus was captured when an airplane piloted by his brother-in-law, Jackie Bloch, was forced to land
in Mozambique, where Mr. Bloch was killed and Markus taken hostage. Rabbi Greenwald, Congressman Gilman and others arranged for a complex swap that involved four countries Mozambique, Israel, the United States and East Germany, convicted East German spy Robert Thompson and U.S. student Alan van Norman.
Raul Granados was kidnapped by leftist guerillas in November 1979 while at a soccer game in Guatemala City. Rabbi Greenwald, working again with Representative Gilman, helped broker the exchange of Mr. Granados in exchange for a ransom payment of $4,000,000.
Vladimir Raiz, a Soviet molecular biologist, had been denied permission to leave the former Soviet Union for 18 years before Rabbi Greenwald entered the picture. Rabbi Greenwald secretly met with Raiz in Lithuania in 1989. Following negotiations with Soviet authorities, Raiz and his family were permitted to emigrate in 1990.
In 1994, political activist and New York native Lori Berenson was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason by a Peruvian military tribunal. She was accused of belonging to a Marxist rebel group and plotting to overthrow the Peruvian government. With the support of President Bill Clinton. in 2000, Rabbi Greenwald led a delegation of American negotiators to Peru to press the Peruvian government to free Berenson or, at least, to grant her a new trial in a civilian court. The effort succeeded and Berenson was afforded a new trial in civilian court. At her subsequent trial, Berenson was convicted again and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
Rabbi Greenwald was involved in many of the attempts to gain clemency for Jonathan Pollard by convincing the then serving President of the United States to pardon Pollard or to commute his sentence. Particularly noteworthy was his effort to set up a three way trade involving Israel, the United States and Russia. Under Rabbi Greenwald’s proposal, Israel would release Professor Marcus Klingberg, who was being held by Israel or suspected Russian spy Shabattai Kalmanovich to Russia, the Russians would release Dmitri Polyakov (known to the FBI as “Top Hat”) or Anatoly Filatov, who were both being held by Russia on suspicion of having spied for the United States, and the U.S. would pardon Pollard and allow him to move to Israel. Congressman Benjamin Gilman and Sam Nunn’s former chief of staff, Jeff Smith (who would later become chief council for the CIA) were also involved in the proposed transaction.
Unfortunately for Pollard, the effort broke down when Yossi Ben Aharon, assistant to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir insisted on Israel negotiating directly with the Russians rather than through an intermediary such as Rabbi Greenwald. The Israeli negotiating effort never gained traction, and Pollard remained in prison until 2015.
Rabbi Greenwald’s and others’ efforts to convince U.S. President Bill Clinton to commute Pollard’s sentence were hampered in large part by a letter written to Clinton by Donald Rumsfeld and signed by seven former Secretaries of Defense, urging the President not to pardon Pollard.
In 1983, Dr. Alfred Zehe, an East German scientist attending a conference in Massachusetts, was arrested for conspiracy to violate U.S. espionage laws for allegedly handing secret “sonar plan” documents to East German operatives in Mexico. East German lawyer and spy trader Wolfgang Vogel was put in charge of the effort to free Zehe. He brought in Alan Dershowitz to oversee the legalities of the effort and Greenwald to act as a person liaison between him and Zehe.
Rabbi Greenwald visited Zehe several times in prison. During this time, he learned that Zehe was being threatened with being brought to trial under espionage charges that carried the threat of many decades in prison while being cajoled to turn over to the CIA whatever information he had that might be helpful to that agency. Rabbi Greenwald conveyed messages to Zehe from his family urging him to do whatever it took to allow himself to be released as soon as possible. Eventually, Zehe pled guilty and conducted a full debriefing in exchange for the promise of a light sentence. He was released as part an exchange of agents in June 1985.
Rabbi Greenwald was a featured speaker at many conventions and gatherings throughout his career.
In September 1997, during a visit of scores of rabbonim and others to Lithuania to commemorate the 200th yahrtzeit of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Greenwald personally successfully negotiated with the Lithuanian government to allow the burial of several desecrated Sifrei Torah. The Sifrei Torah were among hundreds of Sifrei Torah that had been disgraced by the Nazis and/or the Lithuanians during World War II. With the negotiated help of the government, Rabbi Greenwald and others located over three hundred Sifrei Torah, including some that were being held in the basement of a church. They were able to salvage most of the scrolls for further use. The Sifrei Torah that could not be salvaged were buried in a ceremony attended by visiting Jews from around the World and Lithuanian officials.
The day prior to the levaya, Rabbi Greenwald was invited to address the Lithuanian Parliament.
During the same visit, Rabbi Greenwald intervened with the Prime Minister to prevent the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. The Lithuanian government was going to raze the cemetery and erect a shopping mall on the site. Rabbi Greenwald contacted the Prime Minister’s office and promised the Prime Minister that saving the cemetery would bring him great blessing. As Rabbi Greenwald had previously interceded on Lithuania’s behalf as it sought to enter NATO, his words carried strong influence with the Prime Minister and his request was heeded.
On November 15, 2009, The Yitti Liebel Help Line honored Rabbi Greenwald by dedicating the event and the journal as a tribute to him. The journal cover page referred to him as a “champion of chessed” and as a “living, one man chessed organization.” The journal credited him with saving Jews from eastern Europe and Africa and proclaimed that “thousands of people owe more than they can ever repay to one hero – Ronnie.”
Rabbi Greenwald had a variety of unusual ties to South Africa in the Apartheid era. He was the diplomatic representative of the African Bantustan of Bophuthatswana in the United States, when that “homeland” lacked international recognition.
When not engaged in high-stakes international diplomacy, Rabbi Greenwald operated Camp Sternberg, a summer camp in the Catskills, and ran Monsey Academy for Girls, a private high school in Rockland County, New York, of which he was the founder.
Rabbi Greenwald served as chairman of the board of the Women’s League in Rockland County, which creates and oversees adult group homes in that county, and of the Borough Park branch of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS). He also served on the Board of Governors of the Orthodox Union and as acting chairman of Magenu.
Rabbi Greenwald was on vacation in Florida and had been feeling fine when he retired for the night. He was niftar overnight in his sleep.
His passing has plunged his thousands of friends and admirers into mourning.
Levaya details will be provided when they are available.
UPDATE, 10:10 a.m.: The aron will be flown to New York and the levaya is expected to be held this afternoon in Monsey, NY. The aron will then be flown from JFK International Airport to Eretz Yisroel for kevurah there. Further details will be provided once they are finalized.
VIDEO: Rabbi Greenwald at a melava malka this past Motzoei Shabbos: