Daring Diplomat: Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald

(L-R:) Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, East German spymaster Wolfgang Vogel and Congressman Benjamin Gilman in New York in 1978.

Klal Yisrael was deeply saddened on Wednesday, January 20, 2016, by the passing of noted askan Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald. Below is an interview with Rabbi Greenwald that appeared in Hamodia’s Inyan Magazine on May 2, 2012, as part of its series “Standing Astride History: Shtadlanus in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.”

Daring Diplomat: Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald

By Suri Cohen

The unlikely career of a man whose credentials — community activist, political mastermind, mentor for troubled teens, creative camp director, international spy swapper and hostage mediator — strain at the confines of cliché has its roots in Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland sixty years ago.

“I was learning with my chavrusa in Telshe,” he says, seated in his comfortable den, the walls of which are liberally studded with family portraits, photos of him with various Gedolim, and letters from U.S. presidents, “and we were studying the halachah that permits the sale of a sefer Torah, which is forbidden under almost all circumstances, for the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, freeing captives. In passing, I commented to my chavrusa that this is a mitzvah that we Americans never get a chance to do. Pidyon shevuyim is something we associate with Europe in distant times. Little did I know then that I would spend many decades of my life traveling the world in order to fulfill this mitzvah.”

His access to politicians at the summit of power began when he was recruited by President Richard Nixon in 1970, on the recommendation of New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had employed Rabbi Greenwald during his gubernatorial campaign. Two years before the 1972 presidential election, he served as the president’s liaison to the Jewish community in thirteen states with crucial Jewish votes. Most of the country’s Jews were then, as they still are, liberal Democrats, with the marked exception of the Orthodox.

Because this was the case, Rabbi Greenwald stated, “I thought it was important that the Orthodox vote have a presence in the Republican Party. Nixon hired me to get the Jewish vote and to define what interests he shared with the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Rabbi Sherer outlined many areas in which religious Jews are in agreement with the Republican platform — among them aid to education and the primacy of a strong military. “And on Israel, Nixon was one of the best presidents we ever had,” he added, surely one of history’s enigmas given the former president’s well-publicized anti-Jewish sentiments.

“As I was working on Nixon’s campaign, in the back of my mind was the knowledge that if I delivered for him, I would have access to all presidential and Cabinet offices after the election.” This proved to be the case.

Rabbi Greenwald was given an office in the Executive Office Building. More importantly, his office telephone was registered with a White House phone number. “So when I would phone various Cabinet offices on issues of Jewish interest, my calls were always returned. I fought to get as much as we were entitled to.”

He used his clout with the Department of Agriculture to obtain chicken for yeshivah lunch programs; with the Department of Labor to open up employment opportunities for the Jewish community; with the Housing Department to augment available housing for Jewish seniors; and with the Department of Education to pilot the Head Start program in eight yeshivos, as well as a legal aid grant for the Jewish community that lasted ten years.

“A major victory, which was accomplished with the invaluable aid of Senator Jacob Javits [of New York], was the fight to have eligible religious Jews included in poverty-assistance programs. There was a general perception that if you were Jewish, you couldn’t be poor. In order to be eligible, a group had to be ‘economically and culturally deprived,’ which was the sticking point,” said Rabbi Greenwald. “Some of our people may be economically deprived, but they are certainly culturally rich! So I asked Javits to add a slash to the wording, which then read ‘economically/culturally deprived.’ This meant that if you were both poor and a religious Jew, you were now eligible for increased government aid.”

During his tenure in government, Rabbi Greenwald also served as a consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which he used as a platform to assist schools and Jewish seniors. “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.”

Although he left government to pursue a business career after Nixon’s impeachment, Rabbi Greenwald maintained all his high-level government contacts. The most fruitful relationship would prove to be the one he forged with Congressman Benjamin Gilman of Rockland County, New York, a powerful Republican who was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. It was a connection that was crucial to the remarkable successes of this colorful and unlikely shtadlan.

“Even though at this point I was a private citizen, wherever I went, governments knew that I had U.S. government backing.” He pauses to enunciate a classic shtadlanus formulation. “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.

“I had an unofficial understanding with other Jewish activists who had clout in government: I would stick to the domestic front and leave international affairs, specifically Israel, to them.”

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 affair of Miron Marcus, an Israeli national living in Rhodesia. His plane, piloted by his brother-in-law, Jackie Bloch, was shot down when it strayed into the airspace of Mozambique, an African Communist client state of the Soviet Union. Bloch was killed immediately, and Marcus was imprisoned in solitary confinement.

Rabbi Greenwald’s involvement began when he was asked by a Knesset member to get involved on behalf of Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, who was then imprisoned as a refusenik in the Soviet Union. Traveling to East Germany, he appeared in the office of key Communist lawyer Wolfgang Vogel, “looking about as inconspicuous … as a three-headed giraffe.”

When he proposed a swap between Sharansky and Robert Thompson, an American imprisoned for spying for the Soviet Union, Vogel demurred, saying that Sharansky was off the table, whereupon Rabbi Greenwald suggested exchanging Thompson for Marcus instead. After many more meetings with Vogel involving yet another prisoner, he finally emerged triumphant, with a contract authorizing the prisoner swap signed by the State Department and Vogel. The exchange was set for April 10, 1978.

“When I checked the calendar, I realized that the night of April 10th was the first night of Pesach. I called Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explained the case to him, and asked him if I was allowed to fly on Pesach for pidyon shevuyim. He ruled that I should go and wished me hatzlachah.”

Rabbi Greenwald arrived at the Mozambique prison late on Pesach night, accompanied by the prisoner’s wife, to be met by a dazed, blinking Miron Marcus, who had been blindfolded and was certain he was being led out to be shot.

“Do you know what day it is today?” an exultant Rabbi Greenwald asked the freed captive.

“I don’t know the month, the day, or the hour,” Marcus replied hesitantly.

Hayom Pesach — zman cheiruteinu! Today is Pesach, the time of our freedom!” the rabbi informed him. “To see Miron’s smile — probably his first in twenty-one months — was one of the high points of my life,” he reminisces.

Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald shaking hands with Natan Scharansky, with Congressman Benjamin Gilman in the background 8)
Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald shaking hands with Natan Scharansky, with Congressman Benjamin Gilman in the background.

Natan Sharansky was always at the forefront of Rabbi Greenwald’s agenda, and he spent nine years in an ultimately successful effort to win the refusenik’s freedom. His diplomatic efforts included an attempt to swap Sharansky for Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned South African statesman, by trying to convince the apartheid government that the move would be beneficial economically and politically since Israel was one of its major trading partners.

Eventually, with the aid of connections to U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the ubiquitous Wolfgang Vogel, among others, a complicated swap involving Communists and Westerners was arranged in 1986.

“I called my son Zecharya in Yerushalayim and told him to call Avital Sharansky and tell her that her husband would be out before Pesach. When he did so, [she] didn’t believe him. Zecharya said to her, ‘He’s coming out. My father said so!’”

When Sharansky took the historic walk across the Glienicke Bridge from East to West Berlin, he was accompanied not by the man who had moved mountains for his freedom, but by Richard R. Burt, the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany, who didn’t want the rabbi or Congressman Gilman to be there.

“That was perfectly fine with me,” said Rabbi Greenwald. “I wasn’t in it for the kavod, just for the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim. Sharansky had no idea who I was. Wolfgang Vogel told him, ‘You know, there’s a rabbi in America who saved your life.’ I’ve never asked Sharansky for anything since his release. We met once for dinner with our wives. That’s it.”

Other names coupled with Rabbi Greenwald’s are those of Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich and Zev and Carmela Raiz of Russia; Lori Berenson, an American imprisoned in Peru; and Raul Granados, kidnapped by leftist guerrillas in Guatemala City. He has also been an articulate spokesman defending Orthodox interests before a sometimes hostile American media.

Rabbi Greenwald’s energy shows no sign of flagging, although several decades have passed since his remarkable career first began. He remains active, involved, and ready to jump at the first ring of the telephone. A Jew is calling for help, and this big man with a big heart is there to take the call.