By Andrew Adler
On Jan. 2, 2023, 49-year-old Craig Greenberg began his tenure as Louisville’s newest mayor. A product of Ballard High School, the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School, more recently he was the CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, which he co-founded with Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson in 2006. While campaigning on Feb. 14, 2022, Greenberg survived an assassination attempt when local activist Quintez Brown fired three shots at him. A bullet pierced Greenberg’s sweater, but he was physically unharmed.
A year and a day after that incident, Greenberg sat down with Community Managing Editor Andrew Adler to chat about how his Jewish values have helped shape his perspectives on life and politics. Below are excerpts from that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
During a news conference last month, you showed participants a Nazi-issued passport that had belonged to your Jewish grandfather, who escaped from Germany before the start of WW II. Do you remember when you first saw it?
It was just a few years ago – I guess it was after my grandmother had passed. My mom had a lot of stuff that was from her mother. She and my dad went with her brother to her parents’ hometowns in Germany, and I guess it was before or after that trip that they went through a lot of their parents’ possessions, and found that.
When you held it in your hand, was there a kind of resonance in that moment?
What gave me chills was when I was flipping through and I saw the stamp with the swastika, the symbol of the Third Reich. That’s when it really hit me – you’re a lucky person, that my grandfather and grandmother made it out.
What did you tell your children about your grandfather, about that experience?
We talked a lot about it. We actually went on a family trip to Germany, and we went together to Dachau. Going was a very powerful trip for our family and for my kids.
You moved to Louisville when you were seven years old, to a very different dynamic compared to living on Long Island. Was there a sense that you were part of a very small community within a much larger, surrounding set of people?
I’m not sure I thought about it that way because as a kid, your life is what’s normal and regardless of what circumstances you’re in, that’s what’s normal to you. Being Jewish, I took off different days of school for the holidays than my Christian or Muslim friends. We had different traditions – I went to Hebrew school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons back then, and I was in BBYO, things like that.
How active was your family in terms of imparting a sense of that faith to you? Was there a lot of observance – did you attend shul – that sort of thing? Was it more secular, more religious, spiritual cultural?
I mean it was all of the above. Certainly I went to synagogue – more leading up to my bar mitzvah, and in the years shortly thereafter, than I do today. But I was active with Jewish studies all the way through to what was then the High School for Jewish Studies, or whatever they called it. Growing up I attended Keneseth (Israel); we now attend Adath Jeshurun. My sister attends The Temple. So we’ve got friends and family everywhere.
We tend to assume that politically, Jewish families are liberal, progressive – however you define that. Was there a liberal set of values, politically, or was that not something that was in the foreground of discussion?
You know, I think it was more about values than it was about politics. As I’ve reflected on this over the past few years – thinking about running for mayor and now being mayor – the thing that keeps coming back to me is the concept of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world. I think that’s one of the biggest set of values I take away from my Jewish upbringing and heritage. I know that with my wife, Rachel, it guides her, and we try to instill those same values in our two boys.
How does that seep into governance? There’s a pragmatic aspect, obviously, to being the CEO of the city – politics is a rough and tumble business. Can you reconcile that with the spirit of Tikkun Olam, wanting to do the right thing, be morally just, and so forth? Is there ever a collision?
I don’t think so. In my campaign, I was focused on the challenges the city faces, and on the future. That’s every day since I was elected mayor — basically every waking hour, other than when spending some time with my family or running…I think back to my Bar Mitzvah and the Torah portion that I still remember to this day: “Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof,” which is, “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue.” It’s thinking about taking action and making improvements through the lens of justice.”
When you look at your own moral compass, is it tied together in terms of faith? What separates the spiritual from the secular?
I am firmly convinced that regardless of religion, regardless of political party, people in our city share far more in common than we do apart. It’s just that for whatever reason, people end up talking a lot more about the things they differ on than things they agree on. I’m trying to change that.
In 2011, then-Mayor Greg Fischer signed a resolution declaring Louisville to be a “Compassionate” city. What does “compassion” mean to you, personally?
I think it’s about being empathetic to others. Doing a lot of listening and learning from others who have had different experiences from you, particularly others who were born into life with not as much hope and opportunity as I may have had, and then taking action.
Antisemitism: Is there a feeling that it’s endemic, maybe epidemic, and that one has to be vigilant to make sure antisemitic incidents are countered?
We need to speak out against hate every time we are aware of it. And yes, it’s appalling – the amount of antisemitism that is plaguing the city, the state, but also this country and the world. There’s a lot of other hate, and those who propagate hate need to be called out. And we need to support educating our kids, so that people don’t grow up hating others. Kids aren’t born with hate. They learn it somehow, or they see it and decide to embrace it.
You were confronted in the most personal way, with someone coming at trying to take your life. Have you, since that incident, thought about how life is ephemeral, and how these things can happen in an instant?
I think about it every day. That’s part of the reason why I think I’m one of the most fortunate people on earth, to have survived that shooting. I want to do everything I can so that no family has to suffer losing a loved one, losing a friend, or losing a neighbor to gun violence.
The allotted interview time was up. But Greenberg wasn’t quite done.
Let me end with one fun story from my Jewish upbringing. One of the big reasons why I got interested in a life of public service was as a result of an eighth-grade field trip in Hebrew school. Rabbi (Stanley) Miles took us down to see his brother in law (Jerry Abramson), who was then a relatively newly- elected mayor. I was really inspired by Mayor Abramson then, and I’ve been impressed by everything that he did. His excitement, energy and creativity and love of the city was contagious. I guess I caught the bug, and I have I think that’s what first got me interested in public service. So had I not been on that Hebrew school field trip, who knows where I would be in life?