He was a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who wore the traditional Chassidic garb of his ancestors, complete with a fur shtreimal, yet in striking contrast joined the right-wing Lehi paramilitary group during Israel’s War of Independence to help defend the ancient city his family had called home for centuries. He was born and raised among the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, but later spent decades visiting the most secular of Israel’s kibbutzim, introducing generations of pioneers of the Land of Israel to the beauty of the Torah and G‑d of Israel.

Rabbi Tzvi Greenwald, who passed away on April 18 in Kfar Chabad, Israel, at the age of 86, was a man who was not simple to categorize.

He was an early proponent of what was at the time called uforatztah, sharing the “wellsprings” of Chassidic teachings with his fellow Jews. A powerful orator with an easy and fluent command of Hebrew, and an imposing presence, in the early 1960s Greenwald began speaking on Judaism at kibbutzim all over the country. Some segments of the Orthodox Jewish community began criticizing him for what they saw as a lax and tolerant approach towards his audiences. Greenwald, they said, should be admonishing his non-religious listeners, not embracing them. In 1967, Greenwald wrote a letter to the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—asking whether it would indeed be proper for him to take a more confrontational approach.

“Though Greenwald had written the Rebbe a lengthy letter about many different matters,” writes Joseph Telushkin in his 2014 biography, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, “the Rebbe went straight to his last few lines posing the question, and answered: ‘That which you write, that people are suggesting you give these audiences mussar [criticism], what will you accomplish? You will just build a wall between you and them, an impenetrable wall. You’re there not to tell them who they are, they know who they are, but to tell them what you have to give them.’ ”

The Rebbe was telling Greenwald that his mission was not to denigrate—nor patronize—his audiences: He was there to introduce them to Torah and Jewish tradition.

While Greenwald’s outer garb forever remained that of a typical “Yerushalmi”—ancestral Chassidic residents of Jerusalem—his inner identity was thoroughly Chabad, expressed as a straightforward love for each and every Jew, no matter their level of observance or political affiliation.

Greenwald was a powerful orator with an easy and fluent command of Hebrew and an imposing presence.
Greenwald was a powerful orator with an easy and fluent command of Hebrew and an imposing presence.

An Indirect Path to Lubavitch

Rabbi Mordechai Tzvi Greenwald was born in Jerusalem on Aug., 4, 1931 (21 Av, 5691), the oldest child of Rabbi Chaim Yosef Shlomo and Chaya Perka Greenwald. His path to Lubavitch was not typical or direct. His father was a recently married young man in 1929 when the sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—made his historic visit to the Holy Land. Only two years earlier, the Rebbe had been arrested, sentenced to death, and against all odds released by Soviet authorities, a show of such extreme self-sacrifice on behalf of strengthening Judaism that it earned him worldwide fame.

In Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak paid a visit to the Colel Chabad charity, established in 1788 by his ancestor and the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and located at the time in Mea Shearim. The streets were winding and old, and cars could not enter, so upon his exit from the neighborhood, the Rebbe sat down on a bench to wait for his car. R’ Yosef Shlomo impulsively approached the Rebbe, and although still childless, requested a blessing that his children be the Rebbe’s Chassidim. The Rebbe granted the blessing, signaling to the apprehensive R’ Yosef Shlomo that he and his wife would indeed have children—in the plural—and that they would not only be practicing Jews, but Chassidim.

“Thank G‑d, the blessing was fulfilled,” his son would later say while retelling the story.

Greenwald was educated at Chabad’s Yeshivat Torat Emet, which had relocated from Hebron to Jerusalem a few years before the destruction of Hebron’s ancient Jewish community in the Arab massacre of 1929. While still a teenager, the struggle for Jewish self-government in British Mandate Palestine intensified, and at the time it was not unusual for yeshivah students, even thoroughly haredi ones, to join one of the Jewish militia groups. Greenwald chose to join Lehi, where it was considered easier to lead an observant lifestyle.

“He didn’t join for Zionist political ideals, but because he was upset that the British were interning Jewish Holocaust survivors trying to get to Israel in Cyprus,” says his grandson, Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles.

Stationed in the Old City, Greenwald was a member of the last minyan (Jewish prayer quorum of 10) to pray maariv, the evening prayers, at the Western Wall before the Old City of Jerusalem fell into Jordanian hands, where it would remain for 19 years.

He formed lasting relationships during that time, and during 30 more years of reserve duty in Israel’s Defense Forces, counting among his friends former prime ministers Yitzchak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, and former President Ezer Weizman.

“Every time he made a simchah [celebration], they all came,” recalls his son, Rabbi Naftoli Greenwald. “I remember being upset at my bar mitzvah because I barely had a table for my friends. The rest were filled with people from the army.”

Greenwald spent his free time immersed in Torah study, riding his bike wherever he went in Kfar Chabad, a memorable sight for visitors and locals in the Chassidic village. This rare juxtaposition was reflected in his intellectual interests as well.
Greenwald spent his free time immersed in Torah study, riding his bike wherever he went in Kfar Chabad, a memorable sight for visitors and locals in the Chassidic village. This rare juxtaposition was reflected in his intellectual interests as well.

A Gifted Teacher In and Out of a Classroom

Shortly after his marriage to Rivka Miriam Rubin, in 1956, Greenwald joined the staff of Beit Sefer Lemelacha, a vocational school located in Kfar Chabad that was geared mostly towards new immigrants. (Beit Sefer Lemelacha suffered a terrible terrorist attack earlier that same year). He taught at the school until 1996, becoming known as a warm educator with a lasting impact on his students.

Over the decades, Greenwald would become a pioneer in Chabad outreach activity in Israel. Around 1957, Chabad activists in Israel launched “Erev Chabad,” or “An Evening With Chabad,” a sort of Chassidic cultural variety show that included musical performances and holiday presentations that toured kibbutzim all over Israel; Greenwald was inevitably the chosen speaker. When the tefillin campaign began just prior to the Six-Day War, Greenwald was there, too, bringing it for the first time, in 1968, to Israeli prisons.

He was also at the forefront of Chabad activities on military bases in the Sinai desert, an area three times as large as Israel proper. Together with other activists, he spent his Purims flying on rickety Israeli military aircraft from far-flung base to far-flung base, reading the Megillah for the lonely troops, and warming hearts with copious l’chaims, sometimes even amid shelling.

Following the Six-Day War, mass bar mitzvah celebrations for the orphaned sons of Israeli soldiers were held in Kfar Chabad, with the participation of the country’s prime ministers, presidents and top military brass. Greenwald was the voice of these bar mitzvahs, as well as the mass Lag BaOmer parades that began in Israel in 1980 (that year, he served as master of ceremonies at the Lag BaOmer Parade in Tel Aviv’s Malchei Yisrael Square). But it was his lifelong role as a teacher that defined him most, including in his last years teaching elderly men each morning at the Tiferes Zekeinim Kollel in Kfar Chabad’s central Beis Menachem Synagogue.

“He was the type of person who could teach a Chassidic discourse, or if he was talking to a soldier on an airplane, discuss various types of military planes,” says his son.
“He was the type of person who could teach a Chassidic discourse, or if he was talking to a soldier on an airplane, discuss various types of military planes,” says his son.

Greenwald spent his free time immersed in Torah study, riding his bike with his long beard flowing wherever he went in Kfar Chabad, a memorable sight for visitors and locals in the Chassidic village. This rare juxtaposition was reflected in his intellectual interests as well.

“He was the type of person who could teach a Chassidic discourse, or if he was talking to a soldier on an airplane, discuss various types of military planes,” says his son. “He was able to be a bridge, connect to people and have very deep relationships with them.”

In addition to his wife, Greenwald is survived by their children: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Greenwald, Rabbi Naftoli Greenwald, Rabbi Peretz Greenwald, Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald, Rabbi Yitzchak Greenwald, Rabbi Shalom Greenwald, Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, Malka Gerlitzky, Chana Heber and Ita Ruth Ceitlin; as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He was predeceased by daughter Leah Schtroks.

While Greenwald’s outer garb forever remained that of a typical “Yerushalmi”—ancestral Chassidic residents of Jerusalem—his inner identity was thoroughly Chabad, expressed as a straightforward love for each and every Jew, no matter their level of observance or political affiliation.
While Greenwald’s outer garb forever remained that of a typical “Yerushalmi”—ancestral Chassidic residents of Jerusalem—his inner identity was thoroughly Chabad, expressed as a straightforward love for each and every Jew, no matter their level of observance or political affiliation.