To Him, They All Had Dignity and Rights


One hundred years after his birth, and 35 years after his long tenure as director of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Harry Greenstein continues to inspire "leadership that will affect Baltimoreans' quality of life into the next century." With those words "The Associated" awarded five Harry Greenstein fellowships last month.

But who was Harry Greenstein?

His services extended well beyond the Jewish community, and well beyond Baltimore as a whole. He made huge contributions as well to the nation and a large population of Eastern Europe through relief and rehabilitation services which were made available gratis by The Associated.

In the foreword to a biography of Greenstein, Herbert H. Lehman, former senator and governor of New York, reminds us that 60 years ago "throughout the United States there was no public social-welfare work, only private charity which was without resources to meet the challenge of the great public blight of depression." So when emergency struck, government resources were mobilized by private-sector men like Harry Greenstein.

His talents were first made available in 1933 when Gov. Albert C. Ritchie appointed him state relief administrator for Maryland. Three years later he was recruited by national voluntary agencies to do an organizational survey which ultimately become the United Hebrew Aid Service (HIAS).

"No area was in greater need of Harry's genius for organization and his boundless energies and fervent dedication," Lehman wrote. "Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved . . . in so small measure by Harry Greenstein's brilliant work. . . . To Harry, they were not faceless names or masses of alien people. They were all individuals with God-given dignity and the inalienable rights of human beings, uprooted and crushed by forces beyond their knowledge and control."

Lehman himself was the instigator of the third emergency grant of Greenstein by The Associated. He requested Harry's services as director of the Welfare Division of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, serving the distressed people of Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia.

Then in 1949 Harry's prodigious talents were tapped again in the turbulent aftermath of World War II. The Associated lent him to organize relief and rehabilitation of refugees and displaced persons.

Harry Greenstein was a unique personality. Although never rich, he was a great philanthropist in the true sense -- a lover of humankind. Although not strictly religiously observant, he was completely committed to the commandments of prophetic Judaism concerning relations of man to man. Although immersed in human welfare, he was devoted to the well-being of his mother and sisters.

And although occupied with grim problems of destitution and despair, he retained a keen sense of humor. Theater-goers knew his distinctive, braying guffaw. Harry's burst of booming laughter was a release from the tragedies he dealt with most of his lifetime.

He exemplified what seems lacking today: the unselfish sense of responsibility for others. Harry empathized with those mired in poverty because he had been brought up to do so. He and his sisters as children had carried collection boxes from door to door. His devout father's charitable activities had instilled in Harry a precocious interest in community efforts to help the poor.

During the Depression, one out of every five breadwinners was unemployed, and five out of five feared unemployment. Therefore, most Americans saw themselves as actual or potential beneficiaries of government. They did not, as today, think of themselves as benefactors of the underserving poor. There was no resentment toward the poor, only identification with them.

Harry's personal life was almost spartanly simple. His Associated salary was all that he ever felt he needed. His home, which he shared for many years with his mother after his sisters married, was a rowhouse on West North Avenue near Monroe Street. An occasional theater ticket was one of his few personal indulgences. He remained always modest and unassuming.

He practiced the ancient Judaic principle of leaving gleanings on the field for the poor to pick up during the night so that giver and receiver would not know each other and there would be no stigma or loss of dignity. Harry had learned early the lesson he followed all his life: that there is only Justice, not Charity. In fact, the two words are the same in Hebrew: "tzedakah."

Throughout the years of Harry's services to Maryland, the United States and overseas, The Associated paid his full salary. Its leaders might reasonably have rejected the outside requests for Harry's services; after all, in times of emergency communal responsibility came first. But they readily acceded, for perhaps three reasons: They knew he was the best man for the job. They honored Harry's sense of responsibility. They all were compelled by their collective historical obligation to those in distress.

In the annals of human relief and rehabilitation, the name of Harry Greenstein is written large and reflects honor upon The Associated and all the compassionate people of Baltimore.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore business man.

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