NEW YORK — Each year, about half a million New Yorkers walk through the doors of one of the 24 branches of the YMCA in the city. They come to do sports, enjoy the swimming pool, after-school programs and the many other health and education services on offer.
But back when it started in the 1840s, what is now commonly known as “the Y” served a different purpose. As its famous acronym suggests, the Young Men’s Christian Association was less focused on recreation. Initially set up as a Bible study group, it was meant to provide a safe haven for young men seeking escape from life on the streets.
Today, the Y is one of the most far-reaching nonprofits involved in community-building in the United States, and the figure leading its New York operations is not a Christian man, but a Jewish woman: 53-year-old Sharon Greenberger.
Greenberger is the first Jewish woman to serve as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York. When she went through the interview process for the position, she asked the selection committee about the organization’s Christian origins and how her Jewish identity would fit with that.
“I wanted to be clear: I identify strongly as a Jew and I want to make sure everybody is comfortable with that,” she says. “I said [to the committee]: ‘I’m not young, I’m not male and I’m not Christian. I can do the association thing. That, I am really good at, but the first three – not so much.’”
She quickly realized that the organization’s purpose is now very different. “I would say the C for us is community, that gave me comfort,” she recalls. “There was an understanding and I think a really welcome approach to saying: We are here for all, and that means we are here for all different kinds of belief systems. We work really hard to make sure people know that.”
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Having lived in New York for 25 years, Greenberger, who grew up in Kansas, still considers herself a Midwesterner at heart. There is no denying she carries with her the notorious niceness often associated with the region.
“It’s an important part of my identity,” she says with a big smile. “I think I am optimistic at heart and I think some of that comes from growing up in a place that was rooted in a sense of optimism.”
During her childhood In Kansas, Greenberger was one of only three Jewish girls in her class. “It was the first introduction to me to having to explain to people why I would not be there on Jewish High Holidays, even if there were tests that day.” she says. “So it gave me a sense of standing up for myself and that was probably an important skill for life.”
Jewish identity remains a big part of her life. Her family always got together for Shabbat dinner and often attended services at their Conservative synagogue. Sunday school and Hebrew school were also a part of her childhood.
“My parents had a very strong connection to Judaism and felt that they needed to instill in us a strong connection to Judaism and a strong sense of identity as Jews,” she says. “My father tracked how many Jews there were in Kansas City – there were 22,000 when we were living there, I don’t know what it is now – he really made it a point to understand what was the Jewish population.”
Her Jewish identity has accompanied Greenberger throughout her varied career. In college, at Wesleyan University, she got involved in social justice work, protesting investment in apartheid-era South Africa and advocating for blind admissions on campus.
She spent some 20 years working in both the private and public sectors: at education nonprofits, developing low-income housing and in real estate; at the New York Department of Education and the Alliance for Downtown New York; and even for the Michael Bloomberg administration in the aftermath of 9/11. She also spent a year in
Seoul, South Korea, working for what she describes as “the equivalent of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] in Korea.”
“I clearly can’t keep a job,” she jokes.
But through all the turns of her professional career, one thing has always endured. “I came from 20 years of what I would call community development work and had a series of jobs–some anticipated, some not– that for me where always based on this notion of community,” she says. “Community is my north star.”
In this position as well, Greenberger follows her “north star,” which she believes is interconnected with her Jewish values. “I always felt like I sort of have a deep appreciation that in Judaism you don’t do things on your own: Minyans are about community, when you’re sitting shiva, it’s about people coming together,” she says. “There this notion that you are not alone and there is strength in numbers. It is part of who I am.”
And in a crowded metropolis that can provoke loneliness and isolation like no other, community, she believes, is a vital need. The Jewish notion oftikkun olam, repairing the world, which Greenberger views as “a mutual obligation and responsibility,” has also been a guiding light for her.
When the opportunity to join the YMCA leadership arose, she felt the move was tailor-made for her. “I realized it was this perfect marriage of community, education, health and service,” she says. “Having spent a couple of years doing each individually, this is a platform that brings them all together, that I think is so unique and has the reach and scale of government but is a different entity than government, one that is deeply gratifying and I think very special.”
Since her arrival at the YMCA, Greenberger has created a new strategic plan for the organization, focused on strengthening communities. “[We want to] help New Yorkers create opportunities to strengthen their health, to empower their youth and to build stronger connections to one another,” she says. “For many many years the Y has been great at talking about how we bring people together. I think now we are pivoting into also being able to talk about the impact we have on people.”
“I think we are, along with parks and libraries, the last democratic institution in the city where people are coming to do the same things together. They find a sense of connection,” she adds. “It might be a group of women who’s been doing art together for 40 years,... it might be a group of older active adults in the Bronx who took up chair yoga, and now that’s their thing... That’s an important gift we have to give New Yorkers.”
Greenberger also wants to expand the association’s reach in the city. Two new locations in the Bronx are set to open in the coming months.
“We believe in the potential of everybody,” says Greenberger, who herself is a YMCA member. “That is in our DNA.” She says her inherent optimism comes in handy in her role. “The thing about the Y that is unlike any other place is that people who come to the Y leave happier than when they walked in, and I don’t think I can say that in quite the same way as any other place where I’ve worked,” she adds.
Greenberger aims to lead by example, especially when it comes to her two grown daughters, Madelyn and Josie. “[I] make sure that they’ve always felt like whatever they want to do, they could do, that there are no limits, and that they have to act with compassion and empathy and leadership and integrity and all of those things.” she says.
Her Midwestern amiability, too, is something she has tried to pass on to them. “You can match ambition and kindness together,” she says with a smile.
Greenberger points to her calf, displaying a two-letter tattoo that reads “chai” in Hebrew.“I’m a cancer survivor,” she says. “I was diagnosed [with Hodgkin’s lymphoma] right after my youngest was born, literally two days after she was born, and it was pretty advanced.”
As part of her year-long chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Greenberger’s doctors tattooed her body with eight dot-like markings to serve as a guide for the radiation technician to line up the treatment fields the same way each time.
“For the last 20 years I’ve walked around with tattoos that I didn’t choose, and about five years ago I started saying that someday I will get a tattoo that I choose,” she says. “My Hebrew name is Chaya, which means life. [I thought:] Well, if I’m going to have a tattoo it’s going to be about being alive, and so I did it this year.”
Being a cancer survivor has greatly influenced the way she approaches her work today. “I do not sweat the small stuff,” she says. “I am better at focusing on the big picture and there is not a lot that stresses me out, because there is worse and because I’m here and I’m waking up every day and that’s pretty good.”