In the Sinai desert before the Yom Kippur War, in Watts after the 1965 riots, in treating new immigrants or juvenile inmates, Dr. Martin Rosenberg has found at least one constant.
"The advantage in being a dentist is that you get a sense that people respond to acts of kindness," said Rosenberg, 73, a Woodland Hills dentist who treated his last patient two weeks ago. "No one misconstrues these kinds of services."
Until his retirement at the end of the year, Rosenberg had practiced dentistry in the West Valley for nearly 50 years. A native of New York, Rosenberg fell in love with the San Fernando Valley on a visit in the 1940s.
He opened his office in Reseda in the late '40s, when there was only one other dentist in an area populated mostly by ranch families.
Throughout his career, Rosenberg has been a volunteer. In 1949 he worked at local juvenile detention camps, repairing the teeth of the detainees at a time when the only other option was to send them downtown.
In addition to volunteer work in Watts following the 1965 riots--where he worked with 28 other dentists--Rosenberg in 1972 helped set up a dental program for the city of El Arish on the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula. Some patients there were surprised at the lack of pain with his dentistry.
One Arab patient refused to leave the chair after Rosenberg treated him. He was yelling in Arabic, refusing to leave until he was treated. But Rosenberg had already pulled the tooth for him, he explained.
A translator told him the patient said: "I know the tooth hasn't been taken out because it didn't hurt yet."
The El Arish program ended after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but Rosenberg continued his volunteer work back in California with Vietnamese refugees and more recently with Russian immigrant Jews and runaway homeless children.
"The image people have of themselves, with their teeth, is important to them," Rosenberg said. People are not just grateful to end the pain, but just to feel better about seeing broken or blackened teeth fixed, he said.
Rosenberg learned about bestowing kindness from his father, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1912 and became a grocer. He grew up in a small town on Long Island, where as a boy Rosenberg was once beaten for being Jewish.
"There are experiences that cause you to have faith in people and not have faith in people," Rosenberg said. What is important, he said, is to focus on the better things.
Rosenberg still has not cleared out his office at the Warner Center Dental Group in Woodland Hills, where he has papers, books and models of teeth on his desk. But he plans an active retirement with his wife, Mimi.
They will travel the country, he said, and also take cycling tours. "My weight is still only 5 or 7 pounds over what it was in my competitive days," said Rosenberg, who played baseball and handball as a young man.
He swims 40 to 50 laps a day in the summer. Keeping in shape will also help him continue his volunteer work. He expects to keep his license active and maybe volunteer in a clinic.
"I still have my skills," Rosenberg said. "My eyes, my hands and back are in good shape."