Morton Charlestein, who died on April 4, just three days after celebrating his 95th birthday, was a man of many parts. But perhaps two, more than any, spelled his success as a communal leader and businessman.
Those who knew him hailed Charlestein as one who valued the role of history in everyday life, yet savored his part as a trendsetter, leaving behind a loving legacy that was at once traditional and inventive.
"His attitude toward life and people was always upbeat," recalls his son, Rabbi Gary Charlestein, who, like his late father, has both feet in the communal and business worlds: He serves as CEO of Premier Dental of Plymouth Meeting, the third-generation Charlestein in the business after his dad had succeeded his own father, Julius, who founded the company nearly a century ago, in 1913.
Indeed, as chairman emeritus of the dental company, Morton Charlestein had filled his bio with many achievements, furthering the success of the firm, which provided sundry products to dentists directly, including a major tool to alleviate bleeding gums when crown molds were being prepared. That last device, called Traxodent, was devised in cooperation with BJM Laboratories of Israel.
But then, Israel and the Jewish world, local and global, were never far from Charlestein's everyday concerns outside the company. A former chairman of the Dental Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, he also served as a member of its Ambassadors Circle. He was a major coordinator of the organization's annual Annenberg Dinner.
For the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services' Helping Hands program, he and his late wife, Malvina, provided just that, offering their names and funds to assist those trained by JEVS, who went on to become known as Morton and Malvina Charlestein Scholars.
His activities also extended to Har Zion Temple, where he was a board member, and to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he also served on the board. The Charlesteins were also involved with the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.
It is really no surprise that his dental company is now headed by the fourth-generation Charlestein; Morton's granddaughter, Julie — Gary's daughter — is now president. After all, this is a legendarily close family, whose seders — 70 years running — have attracted scores of relatives annually gathered at the table to celebrate Passover.
Family ties also were knotted in the Charlesteins' commitment to battle Lou Gehrig's Disease. After Morton's daughter, Ellyn Phillips, watched her husband Alan be devastated by the incurable disease, the family banded together and brought in the Phillies to help go to bat for the cause, developing the largest ALS chapter in the country.
For that and other efforts, Charlestein's name was read into the Congressional Record in 1996.
With all his hard work and commitment, Morton Charlestein never forgot the need to let his family achieve on their own.
"He gave us our own freedom," allows Gary of his dad, a West Philly High and Temple University graduate, where he earned a business degree.
"His generosity, his sensitivity" were traits that helped delineate her grandfather's role in the world, says Elyssa Charlestein. "He instituted values in all of us, especially the importance of working with the community through the Jewish Federation."
On the one hand, he was a terrific businessman, on the other hand — he did have a bit of Tevye in him, avows Jerry Frezel of his uncle, who thought the fairest deal in business was one that benefited both sides.
Also serving for a lengthy term as the dental firm's president, Frezel talks of Charlestein as someone who valued tradition, but didn't fear change.
"He was not a rigid person," says Frezel of his uncle, "a man with no ego, the warmest, most wonderful person."
With it all, Charlestein had a sense of humor that could put all the time and energy he committed to community and business in perspective.
Not one to be full of himself, he was filled with a devilish sense of humor. When describing the significance of his role as chairman emeritus of the dental company founded by his father, Morton Charlestein told one reporter: "I like that title. It means I have no power."
In addition to his son and daughter, Morton Charlestein is survived by four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.