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Communal leader and mentor dies

NEW YORK (JTA) – Raymond Epstein, a former leader of several Jewish organizations, died Saturday. He was 89.

Epstein, who was born and raised in Chicago, played a top leadership role in the city’s local Jewish federation. Nationally, he served on the boards of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; he also served as the president of the Council of Jewish Federations, one of three organizations that merged to create the United Jewish Communities, and the vice president of JTA.

“Ray was a man of special intellect, a wonderful speaker and most effective leader. I always admired him,” Steven Nasatir, the president of the Chicago federation said via email. “He was a charismatic leader who had a deep and lasting impact on people and Jewish communities around the world. World and Chicago Jewry were fortunate to be able to tap into the special gifts of this fine man. We will miss this very fine man”

Israel and the Jewish community meant “everything” to him, according to his son David Epstein.

“He was very involved in social activities for all of this life,” David Epstein said. “Among the groups that are contacting me now are ‘his boys,’ kids he taught chess to when he was 21. He started very young.”

Epstein was the Chairman of the Board of A. Epstein and Sons Ltd., a behemoth international engineering and architectural firm that his father Abraham started in 1921.

The conglomerate has offices all over the world, including in Israel, where it built among other projects, the Government Center in Haifa and City Hall in Ashkelon. It counts among its clients, Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Housing, the Israel Land Authority and the City of Tel-Aviv.

Epstein was known as a mentor for young Jewish leaders, according to Richard Wexler, a community leader in Chicago and the chairman of United Israel Appeal of the United Jewish Communities. The two first met in the early 1970s.

“He was a great, great man and leader, a wonderful mentor to me and too many young leaders round the country. He was very free with his time had a unique love of life, family and Israel that combined together with his business. He was always a person filled with ideas joy and tremendous energy,” Wexler said. “From the time I first met him, he was someone who just by his warmth, I knew I could call him about issues for advice and council.”

Epstein was a close friend of Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem who is credited with revitalizing the city during. Epstein would visit Israel frequently for his business and charitable affairs and would often be seen carting around Jerusalem with his wife, Betty, and Kollek in the mayor’s electric cart, according to Wexler.

He will be buried January 2, 2008, exactly a year after Kollek died.

Epstein is survived by his wife Betty, children Gail Kovler, David Epstein, Norman Epstein and Harriet Bertsche, grandchildren Molly, Ben, Elizabeth, Jacob, Addie, Max, Sam, Alex and Rachel, and brother Sidney Epstein.

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