Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Benjamin Epstein Dead at 70

May 4, 1983
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Benjamin Epstein, from 1948 to 1978 national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and for the past five years executive vice president of the ADL Foundation, died last night at his home in Manhattan. He was 70. A memorial service will be held Friday in the main sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El at 11:30 a.m.

A leading figure in Jewish communal work, Epstein’s concern and involvement with problems of prejudice and discrimination dated back to 1934, when he was a history student at the University of Berlin on a Fellowship grant from the Institute of International Education. It was the year after Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany and the young student observed the beginings of the Nazis’ solution to “the Jewish problem.”

Epstein returned to the United States in 1935 and was shocked by what the described as “a mirror image of what had been happening in Germany. There was a German-American Bund wearing the brown uniforms I had seen in Berlin, wearing the swastika emblems, flying swastika flags — not secretly, but on American street corners and in Madison Square Garden.”

He joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania but gave every spare minute to lecturing the groups throughout the East about what he had seen in Germany and warning about Nazism in this country, as well as overseas.


Finally, deciding to make human relations his full-time career, Epstein joined ADL in 1939 as director of what was then called its “Foreign Language Department.” He worked with anti-Nazi German-Americans and other ethnic groups in this country arranging public meetings and anti-Nazi demonstrations to make the point that what was happening in Europe was not only of concern to Jews but a fight for all Americans to undertake against fascism.

During his years with the ADL, Epstein built the organization into what is generally recognized as the leading agency for human rights in the world. Active in the movement that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Epstein was proud to have marched at Selma, Alabama, at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

He was the author of numerous articles on anti-Semitism, human relations problems and extremist threats to democracy. He was co-author of seven books, including “Cross Currents,” “Some of My Best Friends,” “Danger on the Right,” and “The New Anti-Semitism.”

Epstein was born in Brooklyn and was raised in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where his father ran a general store. He was a graduate of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, received his MA degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and was the recipient of two honorary degrees: Doctor of Humane Letters from Dickinson and Doctor of Laws from Talladega College in Alabama.

Recommended from JTA