Whats in a name Public school honors Fresno rabbi

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Rabbi David L. Greenberg passed away in February 1994, but his name continues to inspire young people of all faiths year-round.

A 12-month, public elementary school named for Greenberg opened in the Fresno Unified School District last month. Greenberg, known throughout Fresno as a champion of human rights and interfaith understanding, was nominated for the commemorative tribute in 1996.

"It's a great honor," said his 95-year-old wife, Estelle Greenberg. "He would have never expected this." To Greenberg's knowledge, naming a public school after a rabbi "is something that's never been done in this country."

The $8.5 million, 12-acre school, which is a teaching facility for children in grades K through 6 as well as a district staff development and demonstration center, is a new addition for Fresno.

But Greenberg, a Stockton native who died at age 89, had an impact on the city that spans back almost seven decades.

In 1931, Greenberg became rabbi of Fresno's Reform Temple Beth Israel. He had previously served as a Hebrew school teacher at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. In addition, he was a chaplain in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps and during World War II, he was assistant field director in military welfare for the American Red Cross.

In his four decades as rabbi and 20 years as rabbi emeritus, Greenberg watched his congregation grow from 55 households to almost 400.

Greenberg's teachings, however, didn't stop in the synagogue. He consistently broke across religious barriers to influence a more diverse audience.

From the late 1930s until 1954 Greenberg joined an Episcopali priest and a Catholic monsignor in a radio program called "Forum for Better Understanding." The radio show, which allowed the men to bridge their religious gaps and call for interfaith understanding, was based on a talk by a national group of ministers and rabbis who had spoken at a Fresno gathering.

"The talk prompted my husband [and his two spiritual leader co-hosts] to say, 'Why don't we do this sort of thing in Fresno?'" said Estelle. "The presence of these three men on the radio over the years really made an impression on the community."

In fact, Greenberg and his partners made such a strong impression that during the 1960s, a commemorative bronze statue titled "Brotherhood of Man" was erected in their honor, and continues to stand in Fresno's Courthouse Park.

Greenberg, said his widow, was instrumental in establishing the Fresno Art Museum and Valley Children's Hospital in Madera County.

Cherished by various religious communities, Greenberg served as a Jewish chaplain for St. Agnes Medical Center, a Catholic hospital. Also a member of several social service and health agencies, Greenberg spent a significant part of his life pressing medical clinics to care for migrant laborers.

"He spoke on behalf of the tough conditions the laborers faced here," said Estelle Greenberg.

His daughter, Rochelle Greenberg Anixter of San Francisco, said she has many memories of her childhood, but one that stands out is of her father marching with Martin Luther King Jr.

"He was always a very compassionate man," she said. "He was really respected by the Catholic and other communities."

That lifetime support of human rights led the Fresno district to name an elementary school for the rabbi. The school's culturally diverse student population — 51 percent Latino, 43 percent East Asian and 5 percent African-American — reflects Greenberg's lifetime goals of bringing people together.

"What Rabbi Greenberg stood for in his life — a breaking down of cultural barriers — is very significant to our community school," said Carolyn Calmes, principal of Greenberg Elementary, which will be dedicated Friday, Sept. 15. "He understood the needs of sharing education with all cultures."