When meeting Professor Velvl Greene for the first time, it’s hard to imagine that the jovial, eighty-year-old, bearded Chabad chassid was once at the forefront of the newly developing National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program.

“When people ask me how I became an observant Jew, I tell them that I’ll drop them a line when I become one,” Professor Greene says with his trademark smile. “I’m still a work in progress.”

“But aren’t you a chassid?” people ask in surprise.

“But aren’t you a chassid?” people ask in surprise“My wife always says,” the professor answers, “the word ‘chassid’ is like the word ‘intellectual’—someone else has to call you one!”

Professor Greene recently retired from his post as the Carlin Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at Ben Gurion University Medical School in Beer Sheva, and the director of its prestigious Lord Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics.

Over the course of his sixty-year-long distinguished academic career, Professor Greene spent many years as a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, before he moved to Israel. He published more than ninety scientific papers, lectured and consulted around the world, and was one of the original participants in NASA’s exobiology program.

Until recently he frequently traveled the world lecturing on Torah and science, inspiring his audiences with his warmth, knowledge and rich life experiences.

Early Years

Professor Greene in the 1960's.
Professor Greene in the 1960's.
Velvl Greene was born in Winnipeg, Canada, to a staunchly Zionistic family. Although deeply proud of their Jewish heritage, they were completely uninformed about religious observance. As a result Greene grew up steeped in Jewish history and culture, and, most importantly, the Yiddish language. “We learned Yiddish, not Hebrew,” he recalls. “Hebrew was for prayer, which we didn’t do.”

As an adolescent, Greene fell in love with the Yiddish poetry and literature of Bialik, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz. He memorized a poem by Bialik, entitled If Your Soul Wants to Get to the Source, which spoke to his heart.

The poem discussed the secret of Jewish survival through the long, bitter exile. “When you come to the house of study, you are standing at the threshold of our very existence, and your eyes are looking into our soul,” the poem read.

Many years later, when the professor first met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, he recalled those words of Bialik. “This is what he meant by the threshold of Jewish existence and the secret of our survival. I have finally found authenticity. These are the Jews who sacrificed their lives for Judaism.”

In college Greene studied agriculture, hoping to fulfill his childhood dream of moving to the Land of Israel and helping to make the desert bloom. Instead, his peers who had already emigrated to Israel advised him to continue his education in America before moving.

He completed a master’s degree in food science, and a PhD in bacteriology, from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. There he eventually met his wife, Gail, a music major who was planning for a career in opera.

Desegregation in the South

Gail and Velvl married in 1956, and he was soon offered a job at the Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, Louisiana. This was one of the first all-white schools in the South to desegregate, and when it did so under court order, half the faculty threatened to resign in protest. In a desperate plea, the university called for emergency teachers. Among those to hear the cry were young, idealistic, liberal Jews who wanted to help make history. Thus Greene began his first academic job, earning a meager $3,000 a year as an assistant professor, teaching poorly educated native Cajun speakers.

Together with sixty other congregants, Professor Greene and his wife attended the local Reform Temple, built during the Civil War era. The Temple had not had a leader in years, and since Velvl was the only congregant able to read Hebrew, they eventually appointed him their “rabbi.”

“I didn’t know how to read from the Torah, I didn’t understand Hebrew, and I didn’t know much about kosher or Shabbat, but I knew a lot about Jewish history and I was a good speaker, so they hired me,” recalls Greene.

Epidemics and Space Exploration

In 1957 an epidemic of deadly staphylococcus infection broke out in Lafayette. With the widespread availability of penicillin vaccinations, staph infections should have been eradicated, but the bacteria suddenly developed a resistance to the antibiotic.

The professor was chosen to head a particular branch of the NASA research project As the only bacteriologist within a hundred miles, Professor Greene was asked to assist the local doctors. With his help, and a lot of hand-washing, they managed to stop the spread of the disease in Lafayette. The professor published a paper describing his work, but it was barely acknowledged by the academic world.

One year later, when the epidemic spread to the North, the federal government suddenly took an interest in researching the bacteria’s resistance. The University of Minnesota provided a million-dollar grant for the research project, and when looking for scientists to join the team, they discovered that one of their own graduates was among the few to have published on the subject. Thus Greene was hired as an assistant professor, and his salary nearly tripled overnight.

In 1961 Congress endowed the fledgling NASA with funds to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s ambition to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. One of the newly developed areas of research was known as exobiology, or the study of extraterrestrial life. NASA was looking for microscopic organisms, because one of the major concerns involved in putting a man on the moon was the fear that an astronaut might bring harmful microbes back to earth.

“Human history is full of accounts of men and animals bringing bugs or bacteria from one part of the world to another, killing off thousands of people, crops and livestock due to the lack of immunity,” Professor Greene explains. “The Europeans, for example, brought devastation to the Native Americans with smallpox.”

Due to his experience in trying to eliminate bacteria in the operating room, the professor was chosen to head a particular branch of the NASA research project that would be looking for the existence of microbes in the earth’s stratosphere, fifty kilometers above sea level.

Inner Space

Professor Greene and Rabbi Moshe Feller (right).
Professor Greene and Rabbi Moshe Feller (right).
During this time, the Greenes also began their own private exploration of uncharted territory. Although they had been the most knowledgeable Jews in Lafayette, they now found themselves in an established Jewish community. By then the Greenes had two small children, and it was time to choose a school for them.

Rabbi Meir Eisemann, under the auspices of Torah Umesorah, had recently opened a brand-new day school in Minneapolis called Torah Academy. “Even though our house wasn’t kosher and we didn’t keep Shabbat,” recalls the professor, “my wife was so impressed by the seriousness of the teachers that we decided to send our daughters there.” Before long, the kids knew more about Judaism than their parents. Then the couple met Rabbi Moshe Feller, and their lives changed forever.

In the 1960s the Rebbe sent Rabbi Moshe Feller back to his home city of Minneapolis with a mission to “bring Jews back to Torah and G‑d.” Rabbi Feller started searching for Jews using a list of names of university faculty members. When he came upon a Professor Velvl Greene, he said to himself, “With a name like Velvl, he must be one of ours!”

When he called the now-famous professor seeking a meeting, the professor mistook him for a charity collector, and told him that he would send him a check. When Rabbi Feller phoned again, claiming it was a matter of life or death, Greene responded that he would send a bigger check. Finally, Rabbi Feller called back and said, “I don’t care about the money—I must see you in person!” The professor finally agreed to meet with him. “I realized that it was going to cost me more than eighteen dollars,” he recalls.

When Rabbi Feller finished praying, the professor announced that the interview was over. “And then my life changed forever,” he recalls with a twinkle in his eyesProfessor Greene’s lab had been working on several classified NASA projects, so Rabbi Feller was escorted to his office by two tall, armed guards. The rabbi requested Greene’s sponsorship for a dinner he was hosting. But, in the middle of their conversation, Rabbi Feller looked out the window and saw the sun sinking beneath the horizon. Without another word, he jumped up, pulled out a gartel, prayer sash, and started praying the afternoon services. The professor was shocked, “Where I came from, nobody had even heard of afternoon services. I was very offended.”

When Rabbi Feller finished praying, the professor announced that the interview was over. “And then my life changed forever,” he recalls with a twinkle in his eyes.

Rabbi Feller apologized, and explained that what he had just done was more important than what he had come for. “If I hadn’t prayed then and there, the opportunity would have been lost forever,” he explained.

“People just didn’t talk that way,” the professor says. He asked Rabbi Feller if he had just been talking to G‑d. “I hope so,” the rabbi replied.

“That was the first time I heard a rabbi mention the word ‘G‑d’ seriously,” Professor Greene says. He immediately phoned his wife. “Remember how we were just discussing whether there were still people who would give their lives for G‑d? I just met one.”

They invited Rabbi Feller to speak at their Jewish book club, and were significantly affected by his authenticity and wholeheartedness. After speaking with him until late into the night, Professor Greene said, “You’re not like any other rabbi I’ve ever met. What do you really want from us?”

Rabbi Feller pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and read off the following items: “Shabbat, kosher, family purity, tefillin, mezuzot,” and so on. After hearing the daunting list, Professor Greene asked jokingly, “Is that it?”

“No,” Rabbi Feller answered in all seriousness, “there are another 605.”

“From that moment on we became firm friends,” the professor says. The two soon arranged a weekly study session. “It started as an academic curiosity for me,” Greene explains, “but it eventually became much more meaningful. I was searching for authenticity and I discovered Torah, the possession of all the Jewish people.”

From the Warsaw Ghetto to Crown Heights

Despite their warm connection with Rabbi Feller, the Greenes had not yet taken any concrete steps toward Jewish observance. In 1962 Professor Greene was invited by President Kennedy to attend a groundbreaking space exploration conference in Warsaw, sponsored jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a brief truce in the Cold War to discuss interplanetary quarantine—regulations concerning the spread of foreign bacteria from outer space to the earth. During the conference, Gail spent her days exploring Warsaw.

“It was only seventeen years after the end of the Holocaust, and Warsaw was still completely destroyed. They hadn’t even picked up the ashes of the Warsaw Ghetto,” Professor Greene recalls.

Gail walked past the huge mounds of mass graves, and through the piles of rubble in the ghetto, with a copy of the Holocaust novel Mila 18, which contained a hand-drawn street map of the area.

That evening, upon returning to the hotel room, she burst into uncontrollable sobs. When she calmed down, she demanded: “I don’t care what you say, but when we get back home we’re making our kitchen kosher. We’re the only Jews left in the world, and if we don’t feed our children kosher, they won’t survive either!”

“Your parents and grandparents didn’t even keep kosher, and it’s far too expensive anyway,” the professor responded. But it was to no avail; her mind was made up.

As soon as they arrived home, before their bags were unpacked, Gail called Rabbi Feller and asked him to come and make their kitchen kosher. From then on, it was an upward journey. As the Greenes’ connection to Judaism deepened, they also began to develop a powerful relationship with the Rebbe.

The Rebbe thought deeply for a few minutes and said, “Keep looking. To sit here, and not look, and say there is nothing out there, is placing a limit on G‑d’s creation. That you can’t do!”The first time the Rebbe met with Professor Greene privately, the professor mentioned that he’d heard searching for life on other planets wasn’t an appropriate field of study for an observant Jew, as it contradicts the Torah’s geocentric approach. The Rebbe thought deeply for a few minutes and said, “Keep looking. To sit here, and not look, and say there is nothing out there, is placing a limit on G‑d’s creation. That you can’t do!”

Later the Rebbe mentioned that in his line of work, Professor Greene must see and hear things about the workings of the world to which others are not privy. “Everything you see and hear is designed to bring you closer to G‑d. Keep a journal of everything you encounter during your studies and travels, and see if you can find the Divine message. If you can’t find the Divine Providence, come to me and I will help you figure it out.”

The Rebbe requested that the professor send him reports about his work at NASA.

Professor Greene still has a file of over thirty years’ worth of correspondence with the Rebbe, about Torah and science, the Jewish community, and his personal life.

Sanctifying G‑d’s Name

Professor Greene delivering a lecture at the conference for Judaism and medicine. (Photo: Osher Litzman)
Professor Greene delivering a lecture at the conference for Judaism and medicine. (Photo: Osher Litzman)
One of the more difficult observances for Professor Greene was wearing a kipah, skullcap, in public. After hearing an inspirational talk given in Crown Heights by the Rebbe at a farbrengen, a chassidic gathering, about not seeking approval from one’s surroundings, he decided to take the plunge.

“There were hundreds of people there that night,” recalls the professor, “but I felt that the Rebbe was speaking to me about not being embarrassed to wear a kipah. In Brooklyn it wasn’t hard, but on the plane to Minnesota I felt like everyone was staring at me. Nonetheless, I’d made a promise to the Rebbe, and kept my kipah on.”

To Greene’s surprise, back at the university no one made a single comment about his new headgear. Until he was asked to speak at the Catholic Hospital Association, in front of five hundred Catholic doctors and clergymen, about the importance of surgical sterility. At the end of the lecture the chairman read off a list of questions from the audience. After the professor had answered all the questions, the chairman made one last request. “We’ve saved the best question for last,” he said. “We’re all dying to know what that little cap is all about!”

“I felt like I was going to melt into the floor,” says Professor Greene. He decided to answer them honestly and straightforwardly. “Human beings think that their minds are higher than everything.” He explained that the word yarmulke (skullcap) is comprised of two Aramaic words, yirah and malka, meaning “fear of the King.” “We cover our heads to remember that there is always something higher than us.”

For a tense moment silence filled the auditorium as his words penetrated. Suddenly applause erupted, and the entire audience gave him a five-minute standing ovation.

“Here I was,” he says, “an un-ordained ‘rabbi’, who never had a bar mitzvah, who put on tefillin for the first time at age thirty-eight, looking for the threshold of our existence, and I found it!”

The Land of Israel, At Last

In 1986 the Greenes moved to Israel, joining their three married daughters, who were already living in the greater Jerusalem area. Their two sons are both Chabad emissaries in America.

Ben Gurion University Medical School in Beer Sheva, Israel.
Ben Gurion University Medical School in Beer Sheva, Israel.
Although almost all of Professor Greene’s relatives are intermarried, he and his wife are privileged to have dozens of Jewish grandchildren, and they recently celebrated the birth of their fifth great-grandchild.

“Whenever I have a problem with the learning of the Talmud,” says the professor, “I call my grandchildren for help. It’s quite ironic—me, an academic trained in critical analysis, seeking help from my grandchildren! But they were born into the rich heritage that I had to find on my own after years of searching.

“At my age, when I look at my grandchildren, I think, ‘Look at the miracles.’ This is what science does for you.”