Bergen County philanthropist and Jewish communal leader Eleanor Epstein died on January 15 from complications of covid-19. She was 92 years old.
Ms. Epstein died at the Boca Raton residence she shared with her husband of 65 years, Edward, until his death in November 2015. He was 90.
Though the Epsteins spent their final years living in Fort Lee and Florida, they began building their family — and their legacy of giving — in Englewood Cliffs in 1961.
Ms. Epstein was the first female president of the JCC, when it was still in Englewood, and she oversaw its relocation to Tenafly.
Daniel Rubin, a past JCC president, knew the Epsteins first and foremost as close friends of his parents. “Most significantly, however, Eleanor was a transformational leader for our community,” he said.
“In 1976 she became the president of the Englewood Jewish Community Center. The JCC was founded in 1950 and in the 26 years preceding her presidency all of the presidents were men. No shrinking violet, Eleanor rose to her office with determination, grace, and dignity.
“Under her leadership, the money was raised, the construction commenced, and the old Englewood JCC became the enormously successful JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.” Today it’s the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. “Her impact and legacy are demonstrated in no small measure by the fact that not only was she the first woman president of the JCC, but in the 40 years since her presidency the JCC has had no less than six women presidents following in her stead.”
Ms. Epstein also chaired the Lion of Judah women’s giving society for the United Jewish Communities of Bergen County — now the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — and sat on the board of trustees at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. The Epsteins were among a half dozen families who spearheaded the Jewish Home’s move from Jersey City to Rockleigh in 2001.
“A house is only as strong as its foundation, and the JCC, the Jewish Home, the JFNNJ and the Jewish community all rest on the strong foundation that Eleanor Epstein helped build,” Mr. Rubin said.
JCC Chief Executive Officer Jordan Shenker pointed out that Ms. Epstein was not only the first woman to serve as president of the local JCC, but “as far as I have been able to determine, she is the first to have served as board president of any JCC in the country.
“The fact that Eleanor served a role model for other women to serve in key leadership in the Jewish community serves as a fitting testament to a leader who felt so strongly about enabling the next generation to ascend to positions of influence in our community.
“Eleanor understood and felt passionately about the need and purpose of place,” he continued. “That a physical place represented something other than just an address. That the Jewish community collectively could have somewhere to congregate together regardless of background or affiliation and that this place enabled community building. Eleanor had a keen eye for making sure the placed looked right and functioned to serve the community.”
Jodi Scherl, chair of the JCC board, recalled: “When I first walked into the membership committee 20-plus years ago, Eleanor was the voice in the room that resonated most with me. She was so wise, and she represented something larger than life. She impressed me from the get-go. Although there were decades between us and she possessed so many more years of institutional history, she always made me feel like my viewpoint mattered.
“She was a true mentor and inspiration.”
Ms. Scherl said that Ms. Epstein “was remarkable at expressing the centrality and importance of the J. There were so many times she knocked on my front door, unannounced, to share her thoughts with me, and still more when she picked up the phone to express an opinion. She had an unwavering and unrivaled commitment to this Jewish community and our JCC in particular. It taught me so much about priorities. I loved her — truly. And will remember and miss her always.”
The former Eleanor Levinson, born on April 1, 1928, earned a degree in business from New York University. She and Edward Epstein met in 1948 and got to know one another while raising funds for the newborn State of Israel.
Much later, they would dedicate the Rose and Louis Epstein Na’amat Vocational School for children at risk in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, in honor of Edward’s parents, as well as the Neve Josef Community Center for immigrant and marginalized communities in Haifa and other charitable projects in Israel. They traveled extensively and visited Israel several dozen times.
The Epsteins, who were members of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, raised four sons, Mark, Larry, Andrew, and Steven. In addition to her sons and her daughters-in-law, Jodi, Nancy, Laurel, and Robin, Ms. Epstein also is survived by her brother, David Levinson, 12 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren. Another great-grandchild is due in March.
Donations in Ms. Epstein’s memory may be made to the Edward & Eleanor Epstein Building Fund at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave, Tenafly, NJ 07670.