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Greenstein, Harry

in: People

Harry Greenstein (October 31, 1896 — July 30, 1971):  Social Worker, Public Administrator and Leader of Jewish Social Welfare Organizations

By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland School of Social Work

In his lifespan, Harry Greenstein crammed three lives into one. His early family history followed a familiar im­migrant path. His father’s family came from Russia, landed at Locust Point and settled in the immigrant Jewish community of East Baltimore.  His father was religious and had more education than other immigrants. He was soon fairly successful in business. He then moved to West Baltimore where the prospering Germans had moved. Harry was born at 625 W. Lombard St. that is now in the middle of the University of Maryland Medical Center complex.

When he was 13, his father contracted tuberculosis and the family bought a 40 acre farm in Reisterstown. Harry shifted from Baltimore City College to Franklin High School.  The family farmed and Har­ry walked four miles to school after milk­ing the cows; he graduated with honors. Among the skills he picked up was short­hand. After graduation, he moved to the city to take a job as a secretary so he could help the family.  Later he worked for rela­tives. In 1913, he began attending the University of Maryland Law School at night and graduated in 1918. He later established a successful law practice.

His first contact with social welfare came in 1916 when he participated in ef­forts by the American Jewish Relief Com­mittee to aid people devastated by World War I (WWI).  This experience had deep meaning to him and must have impressed Lewis H. Levin (Levindale Hebrew Ge­riatric Center and Hospital is named after him), the director of The Associated Jew­ish Charities (The Associated), since, in 1922, he was asked to assume the presiden­cy of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) because it was in trouble finan­cially and otherwise.  He did a wonderful job of setting the organization on its feet. In 1928,  after being urged to for a year by community leaders, he left his practice and assumed the directorship of The As­sociated.  He immediately set out reorga­nizing the way The Associated functioned. Among other things, he reduced 22 agen­cies to eight.

The reorganization was barely under way before there was a taste of what his future would be like. Between 1925 and 1928, there had been an almost 60 percent drop in employment in the garment in­dustry. The big majority of those affected were Jews.  Even though agencies were un­der stress, he devised creative ways to help the unemployed. His reputation as both an expert in administration and humane wel­fare grew. In a little footnote to history, in 1931, a Hopkins graduate student came to consult him about a survey she was doing on welfare needs in Maryland; her name was Anita J. Faatz. She later became one of the pillars of functionalism at the Univer­sity of Pennsylvania school.  “When he dis­cussed the need for a state welfare program with her that hot afternoon, he could not have dreamed that before long he would be called to serve as Maryland’s first Welfare Director.”

Harry W. Nice, and Harry Hopkins  pro­vided additional funds to educate social work students out of state. Along the way, he convinced the city to create a welfare department. The mayor wanted him to take it and he recommended a juvenile court master, Thomas J. L. Wax­ter, who subsequently had a distinguished career as a welfare administrator.

Things moved rapidly. In 1932, Gov­ernor Albert C. Ritchie appointed him to the Maryland Unemployment Relief Committee.  Their charge was to see if the counties had the resources to cope with The Depression. Of course, they didn’t. In May 1933, even though still recovering from a severe bout with pneumonia, Gov­ernor Ritchie asked him to become the secretary of the newly-established Board of State Aid and Charities. Though it was not known at the time, The Associated con­tinued to pay his salary and the money the state appropriated was returned to the state.

He served three years and got to know Harry Hopkins. Unlike in many states, Greenstein resisted all attempts at political pressure over job appointments and devel­oped services that were efficient and hu­mane. This included employing minorities in an era where this was not done. During one visit to Baltimore, Hopkins said in a speech to people connected with the pro­gram, “It is a privilege to come over and talk to you about the relief program for which you have done so much. The problem of re­lief has been handled nowhere in the Unit­ed States better than right here in Baltimore and in the whole of Maryland. One of the things you do here —you pay cash. That’s a great thing, trusting these people as if they were human beings.”

He be­came Maryland’s first Welfare Director. In 1933, he played a key role in con­structing the Baltimore Council of Social Agencies (BCSA). It was also known as the Health and Welfare Council.  From this pulpit he urged that Maryland get a school of social work. The need for a school was on the agenda of the first meeting. In 1934, when he was the State Federal Relief Ad­ministrator, Harry Hopkins, the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator, provided a federal grant for workers to attend schools of social work. In 1935, Greenstein got the promise of $30,000 for a social work pro­gram appropriation from Governor-Elect 1933. In 1935, he organized the Council of Social Agencies and was its first presi­dent.  One of the few things they were not successful doing was recommending that a school of social work be established. Over the years, Greenstein played a large role in rectifying this. In an era when contact was encouraged, in 1936 he went on a study mission complete with a State Department letter. Aside from tours and agency visits, the group had dinner with Paul Robeson. In 1937, he was invited on a study tour to Mexico City by the Committee on Cultur­al Relations with Latin America. This was a peace-oriented group with roots in the Congregational Church. It included such distinguished Americans as John Dewey, its honorary chairman, and Stuart Chase who, among other things, is credited with creat­ing the term “New Deal.” Needless to say, the Committee and its members were of­ten accused of being “communists.” None of this fazed Harry. Among other things, he interviewed Trotsky.  His shorthand skills stood him in good stead.

He was not to remain full-time with The Associated for very long. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the situation of refugees was becoming dire. He was grant­ed a three-month leave to conduct a sur­vey of the problem. He quickly perceived that there were many agencies operating in an uncoordinated manner.  He proposed a National Refugee Service that would be a coordinating council for all agencies work­ing in this area. The new structure was a great success.  Harry was asked to become the director of the service but he declined. He recommended William Haber, a dis­tinguished University of Michigan econo­mist. Haber did yeoman work in helping refugees while continuing to have an in­fluential and productive academic career.

Six months after Pearl Harbor, he was again granted leave because the region­al Office of Civilian Defense appointed him Evacuation Officer. He was in charge of developing plans for the welfare of the population in case it became necessary to evacuate civilians.  This was a time when no one knew what would happen so all these preparations were reasonable.

Soon Harry returned to The Associated which was dealing with all the stresses that the war brought. But he was not destined to remain in Baltimore for long.  In the spring of 1943, the Office of Foreign Re­lief and Rehabilitation was in the planning stages. President Roosevelt asked Herbert H, Lehman, then completing a successful governorship in New York, to head the of­fice. Lehman wrote to The Associated and asked them to grant him a year’s leave of ab­sence so that he could plan for the welfare of the people expected to be liberated when the war was won. In a few months this be­came the United Nations Relief and Reha­bilitation Administration. Lehman became the director general.  Harry became direc­tor of Welfare for the Balkan mission. He was given a rank equivalent to an army col­onel.  He left for overseas to plan and recruit a staff.  The need was immediate since there were 40,000 Greek and Yugoslav refugees living in tents near Cairo. This was a stren­uous time. Travel was often under difficult conditions. There were shortages of supplies and personnel.  Palestine was in his area of responsibility and he found that there were many Jewish orphans in the camps. He made arrangements for them.

To provide one example of the excit­ing world he participated in, on one of his visits he had dinner with the Chief Rabbi Herzog. The rabbi mentioned that he was a friend of Pope Pius XII. The war had inter­fered in their relationship. He asked Harry to deliver a message if he could. Harry did get to Rome, a meeting was arranged and a private audience granted. The message was delivered. By 1945 he was able to return to The Associated.

Once again his stay was not long. In July 1948, William Haber, by then an advisor to the army on Jewish affairs in Germa­ny and Austria, asked Harry to join him as a special consultant. They did not have an accurate count of how many displaced Jewish refugees there were. With his usu­al efficiency Harry recruited a staff and shortly delivered a report that was accepted as accurate. He returned home but in Feb­ruary 1949 he was asked by General Lucius Clay to replace Haber. He now had a rank equivalent to a major general.  The Dis­placed Persons (DP) camps and the peo­ple in them were not in good condition. There were problems with de-nazification and anti-Semitism. He set about trying to make the camps more livable and to work to have the DPs emigrate so that the camps could eventually be closed. Among the outstanding things of this service was that he was the one who recommended Kon­rad Adenauer to be the first German post­war chancellor.

By November 1949, Harry returned home having closed almost all of the DP camps, resettling the survivors in Israel and other countries. On his return home to Baltimore and The Associated, he continued to bring change. To keep social work abreast of the times, he wanted to change it from an orga­nization-focused to a problem-focused ap­proach with special attention given to the relationship of public and private agencies. Even though he had a heart attack in 1950, he played an active role in the planning of Sinai Hospital and new buildings for the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Social Services, and Baltimore Hebrew College.

In the early 1950s, he led meetings with University of Maryland officials in an ef­fort to secure support for the idea of es­tablishing a school of social work. In 1958, Gordon Manser, head of the Council of Social Agencies, appointed Greenstein to head the committee that made the final push to establish the school.

It is hard to sum up the life of a man who played a major role in building The Associ­ated Jewish Charities with a structure that is useful today; who played a major role in developing Maryland state welfare servic­es during The Depression; and in creating a state public welfare department. During World War II, he had two major jobs which materially improved the lives of those who survived the carnage. Along the way, he had four heart attacks. Perhaps the fact that he never married gave him time but he always enjoyed an active social life, played tennis, and attended concerts and the theater.

In 1959, he made this statement to the legislature asking for an appropriation for the University of Maryland School of So­cial Work which had been approved but funds had not yet been provided: “Unfor­tunately, there are still some people who cannot understand why we need trained social workers and still labor under the impression that good intentions and the love of humanity are all that are necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The facts are that social workers today require the same type of intensive train­ing and skills as other professions. No one questions the fact that we need a school of medicine or a law school, or a school of dentistry and a school of pharmacy.” It is as true now as it was then. Harry Greenstein changed the history of social work.

References: Kaplan, L. L. and T. Schuchar (1967). Justice—not char­ity; a biography of Harry Greenstein. New York, Crown Publishers, Inc.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2011). Harry Greenstein (October 31, 1896 — July 30, 1971): Social worker, public administrator and leader of Jewish social welfare organizations. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from