Bernard Siegel, who served as the first president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. and guided its philanthropic efforts locally and around the world, died Aug. 19 from cancer at the North Oaks Retirement Community in Owings Mills.
The former Quarry Lake at Greenspring resident was 88.
“The 15 years he was president of the foundation, Bernie Siegel followed Harry Weinberg’s wishes to a ‘T,’” said Shale D. Stiller, a North Roland Park resident and Baltimore attorney with DLA Piper, who succeeded Mr. Siegel as foundation president. “Bernie was Harry’s closest associate for 20 years before his death in 1990.”
“Bernie was very serious and had a real passion for the work,” said Donn Weinberg, an Owings Mill resident, nephew of Harry Weinberg and the foundation’s executive vice president. He said Mr. Siegel “always talked about what Harry wanted, and his philosophy was Bernie’s philosophy and focus: He wanted to help people who were on the lower economic spectrum.”
Bernard Siegel was born in Baltimore and raised on Park Heights Avenue, the son of Herman Siegel, a Hebrew school teacher, and Sarah Siegel, a homemaker.
He graduated from Baltimore City College and obtained an associate’s degree in 1951 in business administration from the University of Baltimore. While working as an accountant for Harry B. Gorfine & Co., he became acquainted with Mr. Weinberg, and served as his corporate accountant.
“Bernie was a very easy-going and own-to-earth nice guy,” said Douglas M. Lederman, a partner in Harry B. Gorfine & Co., and a former Owings Mills resident who now lives in California. “He was a tip-top accountant who was easy to talk to and well-liked.”
Mr. Weinberg, the son of immigrant parents, had quit school when he was 12 and amassed a fortune through real estate, transit companies and other business ventures. In 1959 he established the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a charitable foundation that was worth about $1 billion at the time of his death.
While he was alive, Mr. Weinberg was responsible for all foundation decisions regarding grants. At his death, he left instructions that Mr. Siegel was to become a trustee and president of the Owings Mills-based foundation.
In a 2003 Baltimore Sun profile of Mr. Siegel, he said Mr. Weinberg had been influenced by such philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie and Johns Hopkins. While the foundation’s benefactors are across the world, he noted that Mr. Weinberg and his wife’s name is on at least 65 buildings in the Baltimore area.
“I said to him, ‘At some point, Harry, every building in the world is going to have your name on it,’” Mr. Siegel said. “And he got a big smile on his face.”
Mr. Siegel directed the foundation with a measure of leanness coupled with a pointed directness.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t send me a 60-page proposal. Send me a page or two and I can determine if it’s something we’re interested in,’” he said in an interview with The Jewish Times.
Foundation grants have aided medical and educational interests and homes for the elderly. But cultural institutions that catered to what Mr. Weinberg called the “tuxedo crowd” did not hold his interest.
“What he meant was, there are certain organizations that by their very nature have a social cachet,” Mr. Siegel told The Jewish Times. “They will always attract people of wealth. On the other hand, he felt that poor people, and more particularly the elderly poor, would attract no one.”
Foundation grants have assisted Jewish seniors, many Holocaust survivors, in more than 40 countries, from Eastern Europe to Israel and including the former Soviet Union.
“It was important to Harry to take care especially of the poor elderly Jews in the U.S. and around the world,” Mr. Shiller said.
Mr. Stiller noted specifically that after Mr. Weinberg’s death there were 2.5 million poor Jewish people then living in the Soviet Union — which had collapsed. Many of them were ultimately assisted by the foundation.
“The man who helped save those Jewish people in the Soviet Union was Bernie Siegel,” Mr. Stiller said. “If it hadn’t been for Bernie, things would have been different. That will be his legacy.”
Mr. Siegel was a hands-on administrator and would travel with other foundation trustees to visit those who had requested a grant.
“Bernie had health issues, but never complained and never used that as an excuse not to go,” Donn Weinberg said. “He didn’t let it get in the way of doing his job. He was very courageous and impressed us all.”
The foundation, which distributes nearly $100 million a year, is now one of the top 20 foundations in the nation, with assets of more than $2.5 billion.
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