There are some things that everybody mentions when they talk about Edward Epstein of Englewood Cliffs, who died on November 24 at 90.
They talk about his smile, his eternal optimism, his movie-star looks, his integrity, his generosity, his physical fitness, his love of Israel. They talk about his overwhelming love for his wife, Eleanor, his four sons and four daughters-in-law, his six granddaughters, six grandsons, and seven great-grandchildren — and the two more soon to be born.
They talk about a man who was a true leader, and who lived the American dream.
Eddie Epstein was born at home in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1925. His parents, Louis and Rose, were born in Russia; they both crossed the Atlantic when they were young and met on our side of it. They were enterprising business people and saw a niche for themselves, the way natural-born entrepreneurs do, in the 1920s, in the years before the Great Depression. There was a great need for liquid chlorine bleach, and they filled it.
“My grandfather’s customers were mainly laundries, which required bleach, and also diaper services,” Mark Epstein of Alpine, the Epsteins’ oldest son, said. It was about half a century before the invention of disposable diapers, so sending diapers off to be laundered and sterilized wasn’t as much a luxury as a necessity, even during the Depression, if you wanted to keep your baby and your family disease-free. The business, which also manufactured the cement-lined tanks necessary to contain the bleach, continued to flourish during the Depression.
Louis and Rose Epstein also bought land. “In Russia, Jews couldn’t own land,” their daughter-in-law, Laurel Epstein of Saddle River, said. So, free and prosperous in the New World, unburdened by anti-Semitism, “they bought 250 acres up in Carmel, New York, and they had a bungalow colony there,” she said.
Eddie Epstein went to high school a few blocks away from his Brooklyn home, at Samuel Tilden. “My dad turned 18 in February 1943, during the middle of his senior year,” Mark Epstein said. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in April and in May he entered the service.
Edward Epstein fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Rhineland campaign. He was a machine-gunner and a squad leader; “he carried an 80-pound machine gun,” his son marveled. It also seems clear that he was a natural leader. Mr. Epstein won a Purple Heart — he was wounded, although not seriously and suffered no lasting physical harm — and a Bronze Star, among many other medals.
When he was discharged and returned home in 1946, Mr. Epstein and an army buddy did what young Israelis famously do now as soon as their army service is over. They took a long trip — not abroad, but cross-country. They drove “all the way to California,” Mark Epstein said. “I have a picture of him in Wyoming, on a bucking bronco, and another one of him standing on the roof of the car in Yosemite, in front of the giant redwood with a tunnel running through it.” The photos are classic postwar Americana.
The Epsteins always had been strong Zionists. Mr. Epstein inherited his love of Israel from his parents, his son said. “My grandmother was in an organization called the Pioneer Women. She would raise money for Israel.” She did it constantly and creatively. “In the bungalow colony, she would sell ice cream,” he said. “People would sign for the numbers of ice creams they took, and at the end of the summer she would collect the money and send it all to Israel.”
Back from the war, with the creation of the state of Israel drawing closer and the conflicts around that birth threatening to explode, Mr. Epstein worked for Israel. He was a passionate and committed fundraiser, then as later, quick to give of himself, quick to set an example, and quick to ask others to follow him.
Also, according to family lore, he did what he could to help behind the scenes. There are stories that he was among the returned war vets who went down to the Brooklyn docks at night, working in the dark, unpacking arms and repacking them on boats headed to Palestine. It was important and unsung and dangerous work; the young men who undertook it did it because they believed in the rightness of the state of Israel and the need for a state for the Jews with all their hearts and all their souls. Eddie Epstein was among those young men.
In 1947, working for the family business after a stint at Brooklyn College, Mr. Epstein was introduced to Eleanor Levinson, then a student at NYU. They were engaged in 1948 and married in 1949; “in 1950, yours truly came along,” Mark Epstein said. Larry, Andrew, and Steven followed.
The family business, called Alden Leeds and Jet Line, remained in Brooklyn until the 1950s, when Mr. Epstein, then in charge, moved it first to Newark and then to Kearny. “We’re now a fourth-generation business,” Mark Epstein said. “We now do swimming pool chemicals and swimming pool equipment, and we also now are in the packaging business.” It’s been a logical progression from chlorine to other pool chemicals, and from there into pool equipment in one direction, and into packaging — using the information learned from packaging chemicals — in another direction.
In 1961, the Epsteins moved to Englewood Cliffs; the sons grew up there and went to high school at Dwight Morrow in Englewood. Much later, Eleanor and Edward moved to Fort Lee, and spent much time in Florida as well.
In Bergen County, all the Epsteins involved themselves in local culture and philanthropy, both Jewish and general. They were active in the JCC when it was in Englewood, and among the leaders when it moved to Tenafly. Ms. Epstein was the first woman to become president of the JCC on the Palisades.
“They were incredible role models for the whole community,” Laurel Epstein said. “They were among the main families — there were about six of them — in moving the Jewish Home at Rockleigh from Jersey City to Rockleigh, and they made things happen. The community wouldn’t be the way it was now if it hadn’t been for those families.”
Both Epsteins also played leadership roles in the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Ms. Epstein met her future husband, Andrew, when she was 14. They were in high school together. “I met Eddie a year or two after that,” she said. “He was such a strong, imposing man, definitely the patriarch of his family, and he had such love for his family. He wasn’t afraid to hug his sons, or to kiss them. It was such a huge thing for me to see.”
She saw another part of Mr. Epstein when she began to work for him during summer vacations. “I saw the integrity he had,” she said. “If there ever was a question about doing anything the right way — it was done the right way, no matter what. He was an amazing man, and so generous! There was not a petty bone in his body.”
Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood — who later became the second woman to be president of the JCC on the Palisades — was close with Eleanor and Eddie Epstein. “We used to kid Eddie because he was always smiling,” she said. “Ellie told me that he even smiled in his sleep. He was a great dancer, and he was very proud of the fact that he looked much younger than his years.
“He was his own man.”
Dr. Gold also talked about the Epsteins’ unswerving commitment to Israel. “Whenever they would travel anywhere, Ellie would say, they would stop off in Israel. If they were going to the East, they’d go to Israel. And if they went to Europe, they’d detour to Israel.”
The Epsteins funded many projects in Israel, the Na’amat Technical High School in Holon and the Neve Yosef Community Center in Haifa chief among them. The school was for poor young immigrants who wanted to learn a trade as they integrated in Israeli society, and the community center, like the residential apartment building, also Epstein-funded, also in Haifa, similarly provided a haven for immigrants and their children.
Mr. Epstein held fewer public positions than his wife did, she said, but that did not detract at all from his position at the head of his family. “You can’t be president of something like the JCC as a woman unless your husband supports you in it,” she said. “He was a huge supporter of Ellie’s. He was very proud of her. She was president of the JCC, and he was president of the company. And of the house.”
Dr. Gold is a fundraiser, she said, and she remembers the way that Mr. Epstein helped her. “You didn’t ever have to convince Eddie Epstein to make a gift,” she said. “His hand shot up as soon as anybody asked. When we started the Gold Foundation” — the Englewood Cliffs-based Arnold P. Gold Foundation, named after her husband, works toward incorporating humanism into medicine, and has had great success introducing the White Coat Ceremony into medical education — “Eleanor and Eddie went to their country club and made parties to introduce the community to it.
“You didn’t ever have to ask them. That’s a beautiful thing. Most people have to be asked, but he always had his hand way up. And I think that the biggest compliment to him is that his children have followed in that mode.”
All four of the Epsteins’ sons and daughters-in-law live in Bergen County. Not only do Laurel and Andrew live in Saddle River, and Mark and his wife, Jodi, in Alpine, but the other two couples — Larry and Nancy and Steven and Robin — live in Tenafly.
Mark Epstein agreed that his parents valued family overwhelmingly. “He would bring the family on vacation to celebrate milestones — to Hawaii, to Israel, to just anywhere you could imagine,” he said. “He would bring a huge party, family, 20 or 25 people.
“He and my mom passed down a very ingenuous way of instilling philanthropy in all the grandchildren,” he continued. “They established a $20,000 endowment fund for each of them when they graduated university. It was to be used as each of the kids saw fit — but only for Jewish charities.
“Not all of the grandchildren have graduated from college yet, but they all are very well grounded, and they all are serious-minded when it comes to serious matters,” Mr. Epstein said.
Edward Epstein’s chapter of his very American story has now ended, but the Epsteins’ American adventure clearly continues.