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Epstein, Harry H.


EPSTEIN, HARRY H. (1903–2003), U.S. rabbi. Epstein was born in Plunge, Lithuania, and raised in New York and especially Chicago. He attended the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where Bernard *Revel became a mentor. Epstein continued his education at the famed Slobodka Yeshivah and its branch in Hebron, Palestine, both of which were headed by his uncle, Moses Mordecai *Epstein. He obtained traditional semikhah (ordination) from three rabbis, including Abraham Isaac *Kook, later the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. He also obtained B.Ph. and M.A. degrees from Emory University, a Ph.D. from the School of Law of the University of Illinois, and a D.D. (honorus causa) from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Epstein's was a surprisingly eclectic education given the dominant influence of his traditionalist father, Ephraim, an Orthodox rabbi who helped launch what became Chicago's Hebrew Theological College. The Slobodka Yeshivah was noted for the *Musar approach, which fostered modern Jewish character through piety and faith alongside talmudic study. riets provided American Orthodox training but the remainder of his education, including public school in Chicago, was secular. His background prepared him well for an evolving East European-American Judaism and rabbinical career.

After a year filling a pulpit at Tulsa's B'nai Emunah, Revel's father-in-law's congregation, where Epstein advised oilrich members on philanthropy, in 1928 he became the rabbi at Ahavath Achim, the more affluent of Atlanta's four Orthodox synagogues. Fluent in Yiddish and English, and mixing learned Talmud classes for the old guard with early Friday night services for their acculturating children, Epstein offered a trans-generational, gradual accommodation to middle-class Jewish life in America by becoming an exemplar of the Modern Orthodoxy championed by Joseph *Lookstein and Leo *Jung during the interwar years. Traditional observance was coupled with modern education in a synagogue-center environment hosting a variety of activities. Epstein, who lost a brother in the 1929 Hebron massacre, also led his congregation as an ardent Zionist. He headed regional Zionist efforts, participated in national conferences during World War ii to aid European Jewry, co-chaired Atlanta Jewish Federation campaigns with Reform Rabbi Jacob Rothschild after the war, and served as a model for modern, traditional rabbis throughout the South. Following national trends he drew his congregation into the Conservative fold in 1954, something he later regretted when his successor, Arnold Goodman, allowed women to read from the Torah and he realized that Orthodoxy could have survived.

Epstein wrote Judaism and Progress: Sermons and Addresses (1934).


M.K. Bauman, Harry H. Epstein and the Rabbinate as Conduit for Change (1994); K.W. Stein, A History of Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 18871987 (1987).

[Mark K. Bauman (2nd ed.)]

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