Henry Greenberg, longtime cantor at Beth Israel-Judea, dies

It had to be the most incongruous sight: Cantor Henry Greenberg, all 250-plus pounds of him, dressed up in a bunny suit, going nose to nose with the kinder on Purim.

Maybe it was the kid inside him that helped Greenberg relate so well to children. Over his career, he helped hundreds prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah. It was his joy and privilege to do so.

Greenberg died Nov. 30 at age 83.

He served for decades as chazzan at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, the sound of his voice as much a part of the place as the ark and ner tamid. His many friends were devastated by the loss.

“He made me feel I was in shul on Shabbat,” remembered synagogue past president Anne Fuchs-Chesney. “My daughter described him as a grandfather to all her peers. He was a wonderfully patient teacher and he always had a positive attitude.”

Greenberg’s wife, Nancy, couldn’t agree more. “He was a glass-half-full person,” she said. “He always found the positive in everything, even to the end.”

His life began in an Orthodox household near Camden, N.J. and moved to San Francisco when he was 8. He grew up in the former Jewish neighborhood around Webster Street and Golden Gate Avenue. It was at the Webster Street shul that he absorbed the beauty of Jewish worship.

After graduating from Lowell High School, he took premed courses at U.C. Berkeley before a kindly chemistry professor suggested he consider a different career.

During World War II, he served in the Army Transport Service. After the war, Greenberg married Rachel Scharer and opened Hank’s Eureka Grocery at 17th and Eureka (he later opened another store in West Portal). He also worked as an insurance agent, a profession he held until retirement in 1992.

Henry and Rachel Greenberg had three children — David, Janice and Jeffrey. Rachel Greenberg died in 1992.

After a period of mourning, someone new came into his life. Nancy Haskell was an active temple member with a young daughter still at home. She volunteered for the committee to honor the cantor’s 18th year of service.

“I was teaching Sunday School,” she remembered, “and he came up to me to say, ‘I’ve been trying to thank everyone and I’d like to take you out to dinner. I walked back to my class and thought, ‘The cantor just asked me out!'”

The couple wed in 1995.

In his early days as cantor, Greenberg worked part time. Then, one day, he got “the call.”

“He belonged to the old Beth Israel [before it merged with Temple Judea],” recounted Nancy Greenberg. “The assistant cantor had a heart attack the day before Rosh Hashanah and they asked Henry if he would participate.”

Greenberg came through, and soon after, the synagogue board asked him to become full-time cantor, but only if he gave up his insurance career.

“He couldn’t accept it,” said Nancy Greenberg. “So they approached him again and told him, ‘You have insurance and assurance you may have the two jobs.’ This was about 30 years ago. From then on he was full-time cantor and full-time life insurance agent.”

Greenberg was a Torah scholar and could be counted on to deliver insightful drashes. “He knew every portion,” said Fuchs-Chesney. “He was a very learned man.”

He retired from his post two years ago, but continued to serve, even after a devastating fall that led to his final decline. In September, he chanted the maftir aliyah and haftorah on Rosh Hashanah at Chabad of La Costa, in San Diego County. It was, said his wife, “his last hoorah.”

But it wasn’t really. As Fuchs-Chesney said in her eulogy, Greenberg “filled this sanctuary with your heart and your soul. And you will live on here and in our hearts for all eternity.”

In addition to his wife, Nancy, Greenberg is survived by children Rabbi David Greenberg of New Bedford, N.Y., Janice Pava of Palm Desert and Jeffery Greenberg of San Jose; Nancy Greenberg’s children Larry Haskell of Kansas City and Windi Haskell of Israel; and five grandchildren. The family requests donations to the “Cantor Henry Greenberg Israel Emergency Fund,” c/o Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F., CA 94132.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.