The Lewin-Epstein Family, and Other Leaders in the Jewish Community in early 20th Century New York

We recently learned of Marian Lewin-Epstein’s death on November 10. Familiar to me specifically because of her life-long involvement with Hadassah, Junior Hadassah and Hadassah-Israel and her presence in the Hadassah Archives, there is also a slim connection between Marian and HIAS: her husband’s grandfather E.W. Lewin-Epstein.

Marian grew up in Pennsylvania and became involved on the national level with Junior Hadassah after high school, in the 1940s. She can be found in the minutes of Junior Hadassah, attending meetings of the national board. She made aliyah to Israel after independence in 1948, and married Jacob Lewin-Epstein, a dentist at Hadassah Hospital like his father.

Jacob’s parents met aboard ship in 1918 as members of the American Zionist Medical Unit, funded through donations from Jewish communities throughout the United States, and organized by Henrietta Szold and the leadership of Hadassah in New York. The Unit left for Palestine as World War I was ending, in the summer of 1918, comprised of nurses, doctors, dentists, sanitarians and administrators and many tons of medical supplies including an ambulance donated by a Hadassah chapter. By the time the Unit arrived in Jerusalem, Madeline Epstein and Dr. Samuel Lewin-Epstein were engaged. Madeline’s memories of the trip can be found in her oral history. The business administrator of the Unit once it arrived in Palestine was Samuel’s father Eliahu Ze’ev (Wolf) Lewin-Epstein (generally referred to as E.W. Lewin-Epstein).

Madeline, E.W. and Samuel Lewin-Epstein in Palestine circa 1918
Madeline, E.W. and Samuel Lewin-Epstein in Jaffa, Palestine, circa 1918

E.W., born in 1864, was by the turn of the 20th century involved in the leadership of many Jewish and Zionist American organizations. A businessman, he also lived in Palestine at various times during his career. A brief and incomplete list of his involvements at the beginning of the 20th century include Vice-President of the Federation of American Zionists (predecessor to the Zionist Organization of America) (1907); served in some capacity in 1919 with the Zionist Commission to Palestine; treasurer of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs (1914-1916). A brief JTA article from 1923 lists E.W. as “European representative of the Remittance department”, presumably of HIAS. More information can be found in his New York Times obituary.

Listed in his 1932 obituary as a director of HIAS, he was also a member of the board of the National Refugee Service (NRS), which was in existence from 1933 to 1946 and whose work was eventually folded into HIAS.

E.W. Lewin-Epstein was among the handful of Jewish men (and fewer women) of his generation living in New York around the turn of the century, who became prominent leaders of relief and social service organizations, and Zionist organizations, such as the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, HIAS, NRS, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The leaders listed as involved with the Provisional Executive Committee at the start of WWI are good examples: Louis Brandeis, Henrietta Szold, Louis Lipsky, E.W. Lewin-Epstein, Stephen Wise, Judah Magnes and Harry Friedenwald. Others, such as Solomon Lowenstein and William Rosenwald, can also be found funding and/or leading organizations. Working largely as volunteers in some capacity – financial, political – they were for decades the driving force in the rescue of Jewish refugees, in providing a better life for recent immigrants and the poor in New York and around the United States, and in helping to create an infrastructure in Palestine in anticipation of a Jewish homeland there.

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