After a longer than expected hiatus, our Humans series will be rekindled with a discussion with Steve Greenberg, Mount Zion’s new Congregational Engagement Director. Not so much to learn about the position or his plans; there will be plenty of time for that. But, rather, to learn about him, and his fiancé Keith. Steve and I met recently at the Mississippi Market on West Seventh.
What do you prefer to be called, Steven, Steve?
I go by Steven if you’re mad at me. Otherwise Steve is very good. So now you know. And I have a few friends who call me Stevie. But not everybody’s allowed to do that.
Though I noticed on your car outside, your license plate says Shmendrik. How did that come about?
There was lot of Yiddish in our house growing up, and they often called me Shmendrik, and they always made it sound endearing. I have learned in more recent years that it can mean fool, but I still like it. A lot of Yiddish words can seem negative, but also be loving.
Let’s start with your growing up years. Can you tell me about them?
I was born and raised in Golden Valley, and grew up in and around Beth El synagogue there. My father was a dentist in North Minneapolis. At his funeral the rabbi said that we figure that at one time or another he had his hands in every mouth in North Minneapolis. And he had served in the army during the war. He liked to tell us that he fought tooth decay in North Africa.
My mom was a homemaker, and I have a brother who is 11 years older, so he moved out of the house by the time I was six, and I have a sister who is 3 ½ years older. My parents are gone, but my brother got married again and has moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil. My sister lives in New York City and retired last year as an editor for beauty magazines, hairstyle magazines. My brother was a computer programmer but he also retired some time ago.
How about early schooling, what activities were you in in high school?
I went to the typical schools, Meadowbrook Elementary through Golden Valley high school and was I senior class president, National Honor Society. Things like that.
And I grew up at Beth El, went to Hebrew School all the way through high school. But even before my bar mitzvah there I was already teaching other b’nei mitzvah students. And about that time, before my voice changed, Cantor Silverman had me make a record album with the prayers and trope needed to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah, and they used that to teach other kids. I think I still have the album someplace.
Who was your favorite teacher in high school?
Mrs. Kakaliouras. She taught us all to write, even if we weren’t willing to be taught. At our class reunions we would talk about our favorite teachers, and hands down it would be her. I had her for English in 8th and 11th grades. Once for an assignment I wrote a paper about why all American Jews should move to Israel, and she announced to the class that the best paper was by Steve Greenberg, but that it was also the one that she disagreed with the most.
Was she Jewish? Do you know why she thought that?
No, but she just thought we could do more for Israel from here. Now I actually agree with her. I think we can have as much or more impact on the world from here. I’ve been to Israel twice, though, and I plan to go there with my fiancé for our honeymoon, possibly on the Mount Zion trip next summer.
And from high school on to college?
I went to the University of Minnesota, and I tested out of two years of Hebrew and also Freshman English, so I ended up graduating with a degree in child psych in just under three years. Then I went to Washington University in Saint Louis for a master’s degree in Education, because they had a program in counseling. I loved it. The school was great and it was neat to be surrounded by so many smart people, but I hated the weather.
Can you tell us what you did after college?
For a while I became a counselor at a halfway house in Saint Louis. But eventually all my friends moved on, so I moved back to Minneapolis and was an administrative assistant at a number of places, starting with a counseling internship at Lesbian and Gay Community Services on Park Avenue, and from there to a nonprofit called the Youth Project.
But I was still coming out and realized that I couldn’t do it in my hometown, with all my family. So I moved to San Francisco and joined Sha’ar Zahav, a gay synagogue that was very attractive to me. I had always been very interested in my Judaism, so when I got there I became very involved right away. And it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in 1980 that I started my career path in computer operations, and that was bit of a fluke. As an admin assistant I learned word processing, and then on my own I started to learn how to program the word processor.
I have never put this all together like this.
And from there I worked for years at the Bank of America, and then MDL Information Systems, which made software for drug research, where I evolved from tech support for their documentation to their computer operations.
Eventually I moved back to Minneapolis again, but I was able to keep working for MDL out of my home for another eight years. Though I would be flying back and forth to California almost every week or so, and that got exhausting, especially because I was in a community chorus here called One Voice. It’s one of the country’s largest LGBTA choruses. “A” is for “allies”, since the chorus became so popular that over a third of its members are now straight, or allies of the LGBT community. So I would go to rehearsal and then leave 10 min early to take a cab and go to the airport, to go to California. So eventually I left MDL, but they gave me a generous severance.
And after some time off, I became administrator of B’nai Emet in St. Louis Park for just about a year. And from there I started doing temp work, leading to a permanent position as an executive assistant at the Perpich Center for the Arts.
Wow, what did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wish I had known. I was so busy coming out and growing up. I grew up in a bit of a dysfunctional family and I had a lot to work out. But I would say I’ve done really good at it, and I know that is not correct grammar, but Mrs. K is gone now.
What did I want to do? That may have been the problem. Originally when I got the counseling degree I wanted to be a psychotherapist. But then I thought, ‘Dude, you’re not ready to do therapy … you still need it!” I like to be open about these things because I feel I can be a dugma. That’s a Hebrew expression for someone who is an example and role model.
I’ve heard that you are also a cantorial soloist, can I assume you are a baritone?
We sang all the time at home. My dad didn’t have a good voice, but the rest of us did. My mom and my sister and me. I started as a tenor, but I made my way down to baritone. But if I really push I can get some of the tenor notes out, which I prefer. Even by the time of my bar mitzvah I was often on the bima leading services. But I really got my big start when I moved to San Francisco, and that became a great experience for me at the synagogue there. Oddly enough, though, my favorite time singing was my big solo in Mongolian for the One Voice Mixed Chorus.
Let’s go back to your next job after the Perpich Center.
After a bit of hiatus, I eventually got my most recent job at Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, just under four years ago. Three years and nine months. It is called LEAP Coordinator, a project coordinator. It’s the Life Enrichment Action Program for older adults. We screen older adults for depression, and we have a simple, free, in-home intervention to help elevate their moods. We teach them tools that they can then use to keep feeling better. It’s been a rough ride, because older adults of that generation are not generally keen on calling somebody up and asking for that kind of help. There is a stigma about depression. We even try to change the language, we talk about low mood, or persistent sadness. But a lot of people assume that because you are old you are supposed to be depressed. And of course that’s not true. But a lot of people believe it. I have developed a bit of positive notoriety with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, trying to make the program more flexible, robust. We are having a little more luck, but it’s still hard to get the referrals against that sort of mindset.
Leading us up to today, what got you interested in the position at Mount Zion?
It was through (Mount Zion member) Betsy Ellis when she worked for me at JFS. Early this year she gave notice that she would be leaving her position by the summer, and I told her that I was sorry to see her go, but that in all honesty I thought that what she should really be doing would be to work on her art, given her creativity. And she looked at me and she said “and I’ll give you some advice as well – I think you need to be working in a synagogue.” Because for the past 4+ years, in addition to my full time jobs, I have also been tutoring b’nei mitzvah students at Shir Tikvah, and this will be the tenth year that I have helped lead High Holy Day services for B’nai Israel in Rochester MN.
And they also have me come down once a month to lead a more traditional service, since there is no conservative synagogue in the community. And I do weddings for them. And recently I created a new Friday evening prayer book for the congregation.
I know B’nai Israel. We were married at that synagogue.
Who was the rabbi? Because that rabbi is going to marry us too.
It was much earlier, before the beautiful new synagogue was built, when it was housed in a former church on the same site.
That’s right, I auditioned there. The rabbi is a good friend of mine, Michelle Werner, we talk every day. She just had her 10-year anniversary there.
What was your first experience with Mount Zion?
We went to a bat mitzvah there, and everyone, especially Rabbi Spilker basically bowled me over. I had never met him before, but watching him in action, I was convinced. But before I went through the interview process for this position, Keith and I went to Torah study and services again, because my sense was that we’re going to be here a lot and if he doesn’t like it, then we’re not going to be here at all. And he loved it.
Can you mention a bit about Keith?
Keith and I first met three years ago, over the internet. He works at the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. That’s his favorite job. He is their volunteer services manager, and he manages the kitchen service, all the volunteers that cook the meals. He is from Foley, Minnesota, a farm boy, and he decided on his own to convert earlier this year, after studying with Rabbi Werner.
And you are both living where?
In Plymouth! But we will probably be thinking someday of a move to Saint Paul or the east side of Minneapolis. Working with JFS was really my first real connection with Saint Paul, or the Jewish community here.
But we have a beautiful home, four bedrooms. And Keith is very artistic so he has an arts and crafts room. And my hobbies are building and home repair, flooring. I’ve been at it for a while, and in my condo in California I redid all the floors with tiling, and wood. I’m real handy. I’ve also worked on cars, but that’s been a while.
Did you have a favorite car?
My first car was a Chevy Malibu, 1967. It was a high school graduation gift. Red. I’m also color blind but people tell me colors. We have dividers in the drawers at home, and all the yarmulkes are divided by colors so I’ll know what to put on.
Have you been color blind since birth?
Well at least since my first grade teacher recommended to my mother that they hold me back a year because I wasn’t learning my colors. And my mother said, his brother is color blind, is there a chance he is too?
Let’s end with the random round of questions. Who was your best friend growing up?
Of the Rockler woodworking store?
Yes, in fact that’s where I learned to use woodworking tools. It’s funny, if you come to my house, you’ll look upstairs and see that I have a Barbie doll collection there and if you look downstairs you’ll see all my power tools. And that part was from the Rockler family. He grew up across the street from us.
And your favorite relative?
My Aunt Betty. I remember once I had an operation when I was about 5 years old because I was cross eyed, and they had bandages on my eyes. My Aunt Betty came to visit me, and I begged to have them remove the bandages just for a few seconds so I could see my Aunt Betty.
And they couldn’t?
No, they couldn’t
Did you ever get into any mischief as a kid?
Oh, there was a time I put thumbtacks in my brother’s pillow.
Oh my gosh! I did the same thing. Only with me it was my sister, and just a single pin in the seat cushion of her little chair. This is sounding like the butler in the pantry with the butcherknife.
It was my sister’s idea though. But I yelled just before he put his head down. I could have hurt him.
Oh. I didn’t.
Finishing up, since this is our year to celebrate and learn about Shabbat can you share any memories, thoughts?
Mom would light candles, and we would have a Shabbos dinner, but somehow it didn’t feel like Shabbos to me. That’s one of the things I am looking forward to this year at Mount Zion because I have a feeling Shabbos will become much more meaningful.
Why didn’t it feel like Shabbat, or Shabbos?
We would not necessarily go to synagogue as a family, unless it was during my bar mitzvah that one year. And we went on the High Holy Days. My folks were not really active, but I sort of got into it on my own and never stopped. In one way or another I’ve been deeply involved ever since.
So I’ve come to consider this job as the cherry on top of my career. I plan to work a number of years beyond retirement age, because I feel like I’m a late bloomer, and now I can make up for lost time.
What would be the proper Hebrew term of encouragement? Kind of like mazel tov would be after the fact, what would be the expression for someone embarking on this next step in their life?
It would probably be kol hakavod. You should gain honor from this.
In the spirit, and paradox, of Rosh Hashanah, it seems that one can be both a leader and a searcher, and through it all, a dugma. With that, we greet Steve and Keith as they join with each other, and with our welcoming and vibrant community. Soon to become all the more engaged.
Kol hakavod Steven, er … Steve.