Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, a Monsey businessman and Jewish community activist who dealt with world leaders as the mediator of clandestine spy exchanges, and with tween girls as the founder of an Orthodox summer camp in the Catskills, died on Jan. 20 of a sudden heart attack. He was 82, on vacation in Florida. He was buried in Israel.
Rabbi Greenwald, known as Ronnie, a native of the Lower East Side and the son of immigrants from Hungary, grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and later lived in Borough Park.
After attending Mesivta Torah Vodaat in Brooklyn and Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, he taught Jewish and secular subjects in several Brooklyn yeshivas before becoming active in politics, lobbying on behalf of Torah Umesorah, an Orthodox day school umbrella organization.
Work on a gubernatorial campaign of Nelson Rockefeller led to a position in the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon in 1972, whom Rabbi Greenwald later served as Jewish liaison.
With his connections at high levels of the political and diplomatic world, the rabbi began working behind the scenes on the release of political prisoners around the world, most notably Natan Sharansky (then Anatoly Scharansky), an inmate in the Soviet gulag system. Rabbi Greenwald also traveled extensively around the world, arranging the release of Israelis, Americans and Germans who were being held in captivity.
“When he was called upon to take action, he said yes,” said State Assembly member Dov Hikind, D-Borough Park, worked with Rabbi Greenwald for more than three decades. “I don’t remember him ever saying no.”
Rabbi Greenwald was the founder of Camp Sternberg, in Narrowsburg, N.Y., and served as national chairman of NCSY, vice president of the Orthodox Union, and dean of the Monsey Academy for Girls.
He also negotiated with the government of Lithuania to allow the burial of several desecrated Torah scrolls that had been damaged during World War II.
“He was involved in everything that mattered to the Jewish community, anywhere,” Hikind said. “He was a religious, erlich [honorable] Jew. He was a fun guy, a fun-loving guy. His face told you this was a guy you could approach. People felt comfortable speaking with him.”
Rabbi Greenwald is survived by his wife Miriam, six sons and daughters, and many grandchildren.
Rabbi Greenwald made a special effort to reach out to young “at-risk” members of the Jewish community, Hikind said. “He could talk to the president, to the secretary-of-state, and could speak with the little girl no one wanted to deal with.”