Harry H. Epstein and the Rabbinate as Conduit for Change
Harry H. Epstein (1903- ) served as a model of the Modern Orthodox and then Conservative rabbinate in the south during a career that spanned six decades. Epstein, who was educated especially at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary (later Yeshiva University), the famed Slobodka Yeshiva, and Emory University, was greatly influenced by his father, Ephraim, the dean of Chicago's Orthodox rabbinate, and his uncle, Moshe Mordecai, head of the Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania and then in Palestine.
The rabbi won election to the pulpit of Atlanta's Congregation Ahavath Achim in 1928. The young man, fluent in English and Yiddish, attempted to prove himself to the traditionalists while energizing the acculturating generation with an entire complement of activities and innovations binding them to Judaism. To varying degrees, Epstein's thoughts and actions mirrored those of Bernard Revel, Leo Jung, Mordecai Kaplan, and Abraham Isaac Kook. He had to change with the needs of his constituency and evolving circumstances, while balancing alterations in relation to the ideals he held most dear. An ardent Zionist, he early decried Hitler and the Holocaust.
This volume illustrates the life, thought, and actions of a pulpit rabbi who was important as a regional role model and who was largely removed from the centers of power. With the use of interviews and extensive manuscripts, the book places Epstein in the context of his times and in relation to the evolving nature of the American rabbinate.
Throughout his career, Harry H. Epstein functioned as a spiritual leader, adjudicator, educator, author, speaker, administrator, fundraiser, maintainer of tradition, and catalyst for change. He opened the path for his congregants' greater involvement in local, national, and international religious affairs. Under his tutelage, Ahavath Achim became the largest Conservative congregation in the south, and one of the largest in the country. Rabbi Epstein advocated civil rights for African Americans and greater understanding among all. In many ways Epstein typified the denominational rabbinate of the twentieth century and how it impacted, and was impacted by, social, economic, and educational advances, generational changes, acculturation, suburbanization, professionalization, and international affairs.
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