The Rebbe and the rocket scientist

Meet Velvl Greene, NASA scientist turned follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

velvl 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
velvl 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My life is a series of footnotes," says Velvl Greene, 78, now retired as professor emeritus from both the University of Minnesota and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "I was at the right place at the right time. Big things were happening, and I took advantage to be involved." Greene, a biologist, earned his first national reputation under fire when a devastating outbreak of Staphylococcus took place in Louisiana, where he was teaching. He earned his second reputation as a principal scientist for NASA in the 'man on the moon' project. Today, he travels internationally to speak on the topic of science and religion, a career that began when he became a close associate and emissary for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Greene was born into a secular but staunchly Zionist family in Winnipeg, Canada. "I went to a Jewish day school - $3 a month, which was hard for my parents to raise," he says. "I learned Yiddish, not Hebrew - Hebrew was for davening, which we didn't do. We studied Jewish holidays, but only in modern terms - Pessah was a festival of Jewish liberation. But the overriding goal for us as kids was to move to Israel. So I studied agriculture when I enrolled at the University of Manitoba. That would be useful in Israel." Greene earned a masters degree in dairy science and bacteriology, then joined the flow of Manitoba students to Minnesota for his doctorate. "The joke was, we were going to Minnesota to get warm," he says. The first footnote appears in 1956. "The president of a small college in Louisiana called, saying he was looking for professors. Gail and I were newlyweds and I'd just received my PhD. There was a crisis at the college - the courts had just ordered it desegregated, and half of the faculty resigned. I was young, idealistic, Jewish and qualified, so we decided to go. We drove to Lafayette, and I began teaching bacteriology to students with little academic background, and all of whom - black and white -spoke Cajun French." Greene also became the 'rabbi' of the small Jewish community. "I didn't know how to read Hebrew, I didn't know much about kashrut or Shabbat. I couldn't read the Torah. But I was the only one who knew the Hebrew alphabet and I had an academic gown. That was enough." The next footnote appears in 1957, with Lafayette's deadly outbreak of Staphylococcus infection. "Staph infections were almost a thing of the past," Greene recalls. "After the development of penicillin, most infections could be wiped out with an injection. But then the bacteria began to be resistant to penicillin - before, 100 units would stop an infection, then it took a thousand, then a million wasn't enough. Infectious diseases of all kinds were taking a toll - babies, surgical patients were dying. And I was the only bacteriologist within a hundred miles." Greene was called in to advise. "I wasn't a physician, but they asked for help so I advocated a return to the old protocols of Semmelweis and Nightingale: wash your hands, wear gowns, isolate patients. It worked, so we published a paper on how we'd handled the crisis." While initially the Staph outbreak occurred in Louisiana, it quickly spread across the US. "Hard to say it, but the Public Health Service wasn't interested until the disease began to spread to 'real' people in the north, not Cajun blacks in the south. Then they panicked and began throwing money at it, hoping for a solution. At the time, I was a 28-year-old kid, but I had experience no one else had. When the University of Minnesota got a million dollars for research, I got a job offer to come back as a professor. We accepted and moved back to Minneapolis." NASA was next. In 1961, Congress practically gave the National Aeronautic and Space Administration a blank check to implement President John F. Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. "Maybe 10 people in the US knew anything about space," Greene says. "All our rocket scientists were German emigrants, after the war. They started with basic questions - what is the moon made of? Is there life? The concern was that 'life' in space might be dangerous microbes we'd bring back to earth, so NASA came to me with a proposal. Would I head up a project to see if there were microbes in the stratosphere? I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I could find microbes on earth, so maybe I could find them in space. NASA set up a lab in Minneapolis and from there we began launching balloons, sampling air from miles up. Other projects followed - Mars, then the Apollo and Viking missions." Outer space may have been Green's profession, but his own inner space was evolving, too. "Gail insisted on a solid Jewish education for our kids, so we found a very small Torah day school in Minneapolis. It was a great school, so it wasn't long before the kids knew more about Judaism than we did. They were pulling us along. That's when we met Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Chabad shaliah [consular emissary] for Minneapolis. Everything else began with him." Greene and Rabbi Feller became fast friends. "Rabbi Feller challenged me personally and I was curious. I wanted to explore all aspects of Judaism," says Greene. His first sight of the Rebbe was at a 'Farbrengen,' a lively hassidic event where the Rebbe would speak. "I was in New York on business and Rabbi Feller called to say a Farbrengen would be held at Chabad headquarters. He said I should go, so I did. The Rebbe spoke in Yiddish, so I understood the words, but I didn't have enough Jewish knowledge to comprehend most of it. The whole event amazed me: There was the Rebbe - educated in math and science himself - who spoke of the 'soul' as something real, not just an idea. And listening to his every word were a thousand Chassidim, working guys, just like me. But for them, everything the Rebbe said had critical importance for their lives today." As the Rebbe spoke, Greene recalled a Bialik poem he'd memorized as a child. "In one of his poems, Bialik wrote about standing on the threshold of existence, looking into the depth of the Jewish soul. That's what I did at that Farbrengen. It was my epiphany." Nothing changed quickly. "I was still Velvl, working at NASA. Gail was still singing opera. We were still shrimp eaters, because in Louisiana we'd learned to love shrimp and crawfish. That was the tension in our lives: We wanted both the Rebbe's teaching and the shrimp." A NASA conference was scheduled for Warsaw, Poland. Velvl met with the Russians. Gail set out as a tourist. "Gail wanted to see the old ghetto but found nothing but rubble, beams and concrete. There was no map, but she had a copy of 'Mila 18' that had a street diagram in front. So using the book, she could see where among the piles of debris the main streets had run and where the Umschlagplatz had been. When she came back to the hotel, she sobbed uncontrollably. 'I don't care what you say, Velvl,' she said. 'When we get home, I'm going to have a kosher kitchen!'" Greene was not enthusiastic. "No one had kept kosher in my family, but she insisted. 'If we don't have a kosher kitchen, our kids won't grow up to be Jewish, and we're the last ones left. This was the center of Jewish life before, and now it's graves and ashes. Our kids will grow up in a kosher kitchen.'" "So we flew back, exhausted and jet lagged, but before we even unpacked, Gail phoned Rabbi Feller. We got a kosher kitchen - but I still ate lunch at the campus club. It was a slow process." Greene's first personal audience with the Rebbe took place in 1963. "My appointment was for 10:00 p.m. I wasn't nervous, more awed. The Rebbe was so warm and welcoming he seemed more like a loving uncle than the spiritual leader of the Jewish world. He asked if I was familiar with the Chassidic principle of hHashgocha protis - Divine Providence: Everything that a person sees or hears is designed by G-d to bring us closer to Him. I didn't quite believe that, but the Rebbe said that for me, it was especially important. 'You work in the space program,' he said. 'You're a professor in a medical school. You travel, see and hear things most people don't experience. Why don't you keep a journal, just a few notes at the end of the day, and see if you can find the Divine message. If you need help, bring it to me.'" With that began the decades-long friendship between the Rebbe and the rocket scientist, one that lasted until the Rebbe's passing in 1994. In time, Greene became an emissary for the Rebbe, traveling to Russia, ferrying in dangerous contraband in the form of religious books and objects. The Greenes sought the Rebbe's advice on every issue that arose, including aliya. They had longed to make aliya since the 1960s. "The time was never right for us," Greene says, "Every year we'd write the Rebbe, asking, but the Rebbe's response was always the same: 'I need you here,' he'd say. 'The work you do here is important. At NASA and with your students, you show both Jews and non-Jews a scientist who wears a kippa, who observes Shabbos. In Israel, it will take years to learn the language and acclimatize yourself, and even then you'll be looked on as an American living in Israel, not taken seriously. Here, you'll be missed.'" From 1976 on, each annual request was met with a shorter reply: "My answer is the same as before." Then in 1986, something different happened: They received no answer at all. "It seemed like the right time for us," Greene says. "Gail's elderly father had passed away. Our three daughters were already married and living here. We had a great offer to buy our house, and I'd been offered the directorship of a new medical ethics program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. But in 1986, the Rebbe didn't answer. We wrote again, still no answer. So we packed up and made aliya." Two weeks after arriving in Israel, the Rebbe's letter arrived, having followed them around the world. "The Rebbe apologized for his secretariat, saying that his original response had been returned, after having been misaddressed several times. Then he said his answer was the same as before. 'If you think it over, you'll see that I am right.'" But the Greenes were already living in Israel. "I immediately phoned New York and explained to the Rebbe's assistant what had happened. 'What should we do now?' The next day, Rabbi Groner called me back. 'The Rebbe says: If you're already in Israel, then you must stay. But you should visit America frequently. It may be that your influence in America will be even greater as a visiting professor from Israel.' Then he gave us his blessing." In retrospect, Greene says, the Rebbe was right. "We live in Israel, we love it here, it's our home. But in my heart of hearts, I know we shouldn't have come. The Rebbe was right - my effectiveness here in Israel has been negligible. It may be true, however, that in the US and Europe my reputation is enhanced by my living in Israel. But the Rebbe was entirely right." Today, Gail and Velvl Greene live in Beersheba and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. "In Israel we have three daughters and 20 grandchildren. Both our sons are Chabad shlihim in the US, with more grandchildren there. We're a very close family. My most lasting memory of the Rebbe was on our 10th anniversary in 1966, when we went for his blessing. 'My bracha, blessing, for you,' the Rebbe said, 'is to remember that there's an old man in Brooklyn who thinks about you and invites you to come back on your 20th anniversary for another bracha.'" "That was the Rebbe," Greene says. "He cared deeply for us, as he did for everyone. But for us, he was the old man in Brooklyn who thought about us."