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.


Relief Allowances for Food, 1943

I’ve taken a brief step back from the 1950s records I’ve been processing to work on the files of the National Refugee Service (NRS). The NRS was formed in 1939 for the purpose of helping refugees from Europe escape Nazi persecution. It was the successor organization to the National Coordinating Committee, formed in 1934, to coordinate the immigrant aid work undertaken on by various affiliated agencies.

In 1946, at the end of WWII, the NRS merged with the Service to Foreign Born department of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) to form United Service for New Americans (USNA). Eight years later, in 1954, USNA  merged with HIAS to form United HIAS Service. Because the work of the NRS was ultimately absorbed by HIAS, some of the NRS documentation from its 7 years of existence were retained by HIAS and will become part of the HIAS archives collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.

The mission of the National Refugee Service on its letterhead, 1940

The Executive Director of the NRS reported monthly to the Executive Committee in a written report, and many of these reports survive. An item in the August 20, 1943 report caught my attention:

“Relief Allowances for Food: Relief clients are finding it increasingly difficult to get along on our food allowances, because of high prices. This is illustrated by our figures based on actual retail prices collected by the Agency. The following tables show the comparison between weekly market basket costs for maintaining the minimum adequate standard for families of five persons as of January 15 and June 15 [1943].”

Comparison between weekly non-kosher market basket costs from January 15 to June 15, 1943
Comparison between weekly non-kosher market basket costs from January 15 to June 15, 1943

“Our present allowances are based on retail food prices as of January 15; e.g., the non-kosher allowance for a family of five is $12.56, and the kosher allowance is $13.06.

"This falls ... 73 cents short for a kosher family" in meeting the "minimum adequate standard for families of five persons as of January 15 and June 15", 1943
“This falls … 73 cents short for a kosher family” in meeting the “minimum adequate standard for families of five persons as of January 15 and June 15”, 1943

This falls 91 cents a week short of meeting the minimum adequate standard for a non-kosher family, and 73 cents short for a kosher family … An early meeting of the Family Service Committee will be called to consider action to deal with this situation.”

No matter what the economy, it was hard to put together a healthy diet for a family as an immigrant family worked to get settled in a new country. NRS, as well as HIAS and other organizations offering aid to immigrants in these years made the job a little easier.