As they gathered around nine pomegranate saplings holding messages written on Popsicle sticks, children from the Tucson Hebrew Academy memorialized a young alumna who recently died of cancer.
The messages are part of a new curriculum named for Anna Greenberg, a 28-year-old Tucson resident who died in May after a nearly two-year battle with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She kept public accounts of her approach to illness on her Facebook page, explaining that she did not have time for “why me” but instead faced her cancer with an optimism she called “Anna-tude.”
An employee of the American Cancer Society before her diagnosis, Greenberg continued to be involved as a local spokeswoman for younger people, sharing the message that cancer can strike at any age.
In honor of Greenberg, the Tucson Hebrew Academy has renamed its anti-bullying curriculum “Anna-tude” and launched a new program promoting character education. The school also planted a grove of pomegranate trees in a ceremony that Greenberg’s family attended. Her parents and five older brothers planted their own tree, and the males in her family wore satin-embroidered yarmulkes with her name on them.
The “Anna-tude” program will offer a special class every other Wednesday to the students in all grades. Regular classes will let out early and the students will learn about concepts like joy, teamwork, compassion, gratitude and faith.
Students learned about Anna Greenberg during a recent weekly Shabbat lunch. Friends and family spoke, a slide show was presented and everyone received purple wristbands with the word “Anna-tude” printed on them.
“Anna is here today,” her father, Bruce, said. “I really believe that.”
A small group or even one person can change the world, school Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz told students at the assembly.
“Anna lived the idea of pay it forward,” he said.
Lewkowicz has been the director of Judaic and Hebrew Studies at the academy for 20 years and knew Greenberg when she was a student there.
Pomegranate trees were selected because their many seeds represent the many mitzvahs, or acts of human kindness, Greenberg gave to others. Each grade, kindergarten through eighth, has their own tree to watch flourish over the years.
“Symbolically, the tree will grow and with it the concept of “Anna-tude” will grow,” said Lewcowicz. “It will grow through the deeds and the learnings you do.”
As Lewcowicz spoke and before the shiny, green saplings were lowered into the ground, each student put a Popsicle stick decorated with messages of optimism and kindness into the ground.
Lewcowicz told students to embrace the positive attitude and sense of togetherness that Greenberg shared with everyone and to pass it along to others.
“She taught us, she showed us. There cannot be a bigger, more powerful example,” he said.
The occasion had moments of sadness, but as they helped plant the tree, her brothers Tzadik, Isaac, Benjamin, Aaron and Anthony became upbeat, stressing that their sister always had a smile on her face.
“Anna would be laughing,” Bruce said. “She wouldn’t be talking, she’d be laughing.”
At a dinner on Sunday celebrating the Tucson Hebrew Academy’s 40th anniversary, the school honored Greenberg with its annual Tikkun Olam award for living Jewish values in action and changing the lives of all those around her. Tikkun Olam means, “repairing the world.”
“She’d be proud to be heard,” her mother Alayne said. “She’d be proud to see that she made a little difference.”