Martin F. Stein: Businessman, philanthropist, legend

So much has already been said about Martin F. Stein that it is difficult for us to know what to add.

After his death on March 2 from cancer at the much-too-young age of 68, this extraordinary businessman and nationally and internationally renowned Milwaukee Jewish philanthropist and activist received abundant tributes.

They came from the movers and shakers of the city and state, from the some 2,000 people who attended his funeral at the Italian Community Center last Friday, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and from individuals he helped.

But, as we emerge from a week in which time seemed to stand still in grief, there is still much to add. As Rabbi Dovid Rapoport said at the funeral, “One could stand here for hours and days, there is so much to say about Marty Stein.”

As United Jewish Communities chair Robert Goldberg said in a release, “He left an indelible mark on everyone who was privileged to know and work with him.”

Certainly, people at the funeral and in conversations with The Chronicle had interesting Marty Stein stories, about everything from his powers of persuasion to his love of Judaism to the lingering odor of his cologne.

Jewish community activist Betty Chrustowski said that sometime in the 1980s, she had a breakfast meeting with Stein at a restaurant at which he asked her for her Milwaukee Jewish Federation campaign contribution. He was “the first person who solicited me who made me cry,” she said.

She also told The Chronicle how she had visited Jews in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s and had tried to get Milwaukee Jews interested in that cause. But “it couldn’t get on the map” until she had gotten Stein to go there, and the trip inspired him to make that one of his causes.

And this was just one example of how “things didn’t happen until he got ahold of them,” she said.

Soviet Jewry, of course, was just one of his big causes in the Jewish community. He was particularly celebrated for his work on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry. He chaired the then-United Jewish Appeal’s campaign for Operation Moses, the first airlift of Ethiopian Jews, in 1984; and he went to Israel to welcome the arrivals of the second airlift, Operation Solomon, in 1991.

At the tenth anniversary of that last operation, Stein told The Chronicle (March 16, 2001 issue), “I often think how blessed I am to have been able to witness and participate in these experiences.”

But his causes weren’t just big projects. Bruce Arbit, MJF treasurer and one of the founders of AB Data, told how Stein came to see him and his business partner, Jerry Benjamin.

Stein told them about a “60-year-old disabled Russian Jewish immigrant who couldn’t speak a word of English,” and asked them to give this man a job at AB Data. “He needs a place to go where he feels like a mensch,” Stein told them.

And when Arbit and Benjamin replied that they didn’t have a job to offer the man, Stein said, “Make one.” “So we did,” said Arbit.

Others mulled over the lessons Stein’s life and actions teach. Community activist Howard Karsh, one of the founders of the Jewish Community Pantry, seemed to admire particularly Stein’s persistence in working for his many causes. “Marty never left anything he ever started” to work on, said Karsh.

Richard H. Meyer, executive vice president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said, “He taught me the importance of always looking up and not looking down. His perspective was so broad and optimistic as opposed to looking down and having a limited field of vision. He always looked up and saw the broadest possibilities.”

And one of Stein’s two sons, Daniel, said at the funeral that “when you were with him,” one felt that “anything is possible,” and that he always sought ways to “do more, better, faster.”

“He performed miracles big and small on a daily basis,” he said.

Indeed, as his ex-wife Barbara Stein said, “The shame of Marty’s passing is that he still hadn’t reached his full potential. He had so much more to give and a potential to affect many more lives.”

But what is most remarkable is not how much Stein achieved in the time he had, but that he showed how much a human being can achieve.

As Rabbi Michel Twerski said in his address at the funeral, “There’s not much you can do about a legend except admire it…. It’s much more important that we understand his legacy.”

“It was not that he had ideas or values or ideals that are so radically different than other people. But he did something [with those values and ideals],” said Twerski.

And that is one of his lasting lessons, even for those not privileged to have known him. If we can all, like Marty Stein, “live our beliefs” and do so with “heart and soul,” as Twerski said, then perhaps anything is possible.

In addition to his son Daniel (Sue) Stein, he is survived by son Larry (Edye) Stein; sister Bonnie Kammer; and three grandchildren. Burial was in Agudas Achim Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to America’s Black Holocaust Museum, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Metro Milwaukee, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee, the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, and the Milwaukee Jewish Home and Care Center.

May his memory be for a blessing.