Interviewer: This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on December 18th, 2018 as a part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at 1175 College Avenue. My name is Toby Brief and I’m interviewing Henry Epstein. Can you tell us your full name?
Epstein: (sitting with legs crossed and hands folded on lap, smiles) My name is Henry Lee Epstein. I was born February 7, 1945, in Sioux Falls.
Interviewer: Do you have a Hebrew name?
Epstein: (grinning) Hershele Ben Shimon Halevi.
Interviewer: How far back can you trace your family?
Epstein: (laughs) My father’s side came to America right after the Civil War (smiles). So my father’s side been in America a very long time. And my mother’s side, they came to America in 1900. So we have a lot of longevity in the United States. But it’s interesting, on my mother’s side, they went to the Dakotas and settled in South Dakota. So we’ve had a presence in South Dakota for over a hundred and ten years.
Interviewer: Wow. And why did they go to South Dakota, do you know?
Epstein: Yes. Because when my grandparents came to America, my grandfather and his brothers, they got off the boat, and as you remember your American Jewish history, the German Jews gave them tickets to go west. And they were financiers for the western railroads. So the brothers got on the train, one got off in Cleveland. And the other three got off when the train, the tickets ran out in South Dakota. And they were very, very fortunate (clears throat) because they did have some money and were able to start, they were plumbers, and they started little stores in little cities in the Dakotas and Iowa and Nebraska and were little merchants (smiles).
Interviewer: Very interesting.
Epstein: (smiling) But the most interesting thing about this was (clears throat) we firmly believe that they were also bringing alcohol in from Canada (grins). So at the end of Prohibition the little department stores on Monday, were department stores on Tuesday, all of a sudden they became liquor stores (smiles).
Epstein: And they were in the wholesale and retail liquor business up until the mid-fifties and my father continued owning liquor stores in Sioux Falls.
Interviewer: And how did your parents meet?
Epstein: My parents met, (clears throat) very interesting. Sioux Falls was a radio school for the Army Air Corps, so any soldier who was a pilot, a navigator, et cetera, went to radio school in Sioux Falls. And it was an extremely large base. So a tremendous amount of soldiers were there, a very high percentage of Jewish soldiers, because they were educated and you know, the pilots and navigators, et cetera. And my parents met at the air base. My mother was a teacher and all the Jewish women, everybody that was Jewish were working, you know (opens hands) supplying the air base and most of the women who (smiles) were Jewish at that time met Jewish soldiers and after the war, the German War, were married.
Interviewer: And how did her family get to Sioux Falls?
Epstein: My mother’s, my father’s family, that was my mother’s family (gestures with hands) that came to South Dakota on the train. My father’s family came (clears throat) from Germany to England to America. And they were in the clothing business in New York and then my father and my grandfather were born in the same building on Delancey Street in New York and as my father’s father became more successful, he moved the whole family to West Orange, New Jersey, and they were the third Jewish family into (smiles) West Orange. And uh, they opened up hardware stores. So my father was in the hardware business with his brother until they got drafted for World War II.
Interviewer: Okay, now how did your, I’m sorry, did you, do you have any relatives? Have you done a family tree? Any genealogy work?
Epstein: Yes. My first cousin who lives in Florida now and my brother-in-law have.
Epstein: So we have two sets of family trees (smiles).
Interviewer: Wonderful! Do you know the names of your grandparents? Your great-grandparents?
Epstein: My great-grandpar.., okay, it’s very interesting, my two grandmothers, my father’s mother and my mother’s mother were both born in Austria, Vienna and they lived within six blocks of each other, but never knew each other until my parents got married (smiles).
Interviewer: Wow! And what were their names?
Epstein: My grandmother, my father’s mother was Tillie Hirsch and my grandmother on my mother’s side was Fannie Schiller.
Interviewer: Very interesting. And what were your grandfather’s names?
Epstein: Meir Koplow, which was shortened from Koplovitch and my father’s father was Samuel Epstein (smiles).
Interviewer: Can you tell us when your parents were married?
Epstein: Yes, 16 January, 1944 in New York City.
Epstein: It’s interesting. I think because of the profession I’m in, you’re very cognizant of your roots and where you come from. For two reasons: one is, it’s important to pass on to your family and children and grandchildren, but number two, legally, you have to do that for death certificates, paperwork, legalese, so you become very much aware of it. It’s also very interesting, because it gives you a starting point to visit with people. Tell me about your (opens hands), whomever, and it puts people at ease.
Interviewer: Very much. Do you have brothers and sisters?
Epstein: I have two sisters. We’re all three years, three months apart. And my two sisters live in St. Louis (slight grin).
Interviewer: Now where did you live when you were growing up?
Epstein: Sioux Falls (smiles).
Interviewer: And you went to high school there?
Epstein: Graduated high school. There were three Jewish people in my class (grins), two girls and myself. And the girls became very, very prominent in their professional careers and I just kinda chugged along (smiles).
Interviewer: (laughs). What was the name of your high school?
Epstein: Washington Senior High School and at that time, there was only one high school in Sioux Falls. I think now there may be five or six. But when I lived there, there was fifty thousand people and now it’s about two hundred and fifty, two hundred and seventy-five thousand.
Interviewer: Okay, where did you go to school after high school?
Epstein: (smiles) Oh that’s interesting. After I graduated high school, I went to Hammond University for two years. And then I went to the University of Minnesota, where I got my degree. (smiles) My wife has her degree from Minnesota, (smiles) my son has his degree from Minnesota, and my daughter has her (counts on fingers) fourth degree from Minnesota (smiles).
Interviewer: (laughs) not bad. Is that where you went to school to become a funeral director?
Epstein: So did my son (smiles), and my daughter, it’s very interesting. She by her first profession, is a periodontist (smiles), okay? And she decided that she would like to come into the family business. And went back to the university and got her degree in mortuary science. And when she graduated, my wife and I, because the school is so important to us, we made a named Chair, called the Epstein Scholarship Fund at the University of Minnesota, is the named Chair. Named in honor of my children (smiles).
Interviewer: That’s wonderful.
Epstein: And neither one knew it, and they called us, called my wife up. And we presented the scholarship on her graduation (smiles).
Interviewer: Oh how wonderful!
Interviewer: What are your children’s names?
Epstein: Teri, T-E-R-I, and Michael.
Interviewer: Okay. And they’re married?
Epstein: Yes, my daughter has two children, a boy and a girl, and my son Michael has two sons and a daughter. You know my son, Michael, is married to Howard’s?…. (smiles) Oh, okay.
Interviewer: (laughs). What are the names of their spouses?
Epstein: Jason for my daughter and Rebecca for my son (smiles). Did you ever meet Rebecca?
Interviewer: Only quickly, once, when, with Howard somewhere, Fourth of July.
Epstein: (smiles) Yeah, the Fourth of July, that’s when they were here.
Interviewer: (laughs) That was it. Tell us the name of your wife.
Epstein: C-L-A-R-I-C-E, Clarice (smiles).
Interviewer: Okay, and what was her maiden name?
Epstein: Esrig, E-S-R-I-G. And her family comes from Russia and Poland (smiles).
Interviewer: Okay. And how did you meet?
Epstein: Her mother’s maiden name was Widowski (smiles).
Interviewer: Okay, all right.
Epstein: And her grandmother’s maiden name was Berenbaum (smiles).
Interviewer: Thank you. How did you meet your wife?
Epstein: (tilts head back and laughs to self, stopping motion with hands) Sometimes in life you just can’t make stuff up. Okay, I was a sophomore at Hammond University and I went home for Christmas break and my parents were paying for my college, which was unbelievable. And they asked how my social life was. And my parents said (grinning) that if I wanted to continue to enjoy the college activities, et cetera, that maybe I should start dating a Jewish girl. So I had a friend who was not Jewish, but we were close at school. And I said, “I really need a date for an upcoming fraternity event”. I was president of my pledge class. (gesture with finger)It was just after the winter break. And it was July 9th and I said, “I need to start dating Jewish girls.” (smiles) Cause I want to stay in school. So she says, “Well I have a friend that just broke up with somebody. I’ll call and ask her if she’d be interested.” And she did and she said she would go out with me. So I picked her up. And the theme of the party was a pajama party, so I told her that. And she said, “Well, okay.” So I come to the door, she’s dressed in pajamas and I was dressed in, I guess a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt or something. And she says, ”Well, where are your pajamas?” I said, “Well I don’t really wear pajamas so I’ll borrow some from one of the fraternity brothers.” So I went back to the fraternity house and got pajamas and put them on. And I met her on a blind date.
Interviewer: And the rest was history.
Epstein: And we’ve been married since 1967 (smiles).
Interviewer: Wonderful. So tell us about where you started your career.
Epstein: (raises eyebrows, grins) Well, that’s even more interesting. So I met Clarice and we started getting serious, and as we dated I had become a staff person going back to Hertzel Camp as a staff person during the summer. And she says to me, “How am I going to tell my friends that my “boyfriend” (quotation marks with hands) is going to Hertzel Camp to be a staff person?” I said, (higher pitch voice and smiles) “Well, it’s really kinda neat, ya know. You can come too!” And she had a summer job. So I said, “Well, my parents are very generous with me, but the money that I make at Hertzel Camp I use for my party money, you know, during the school year.” And she said, ”Well, why don’t you see if you can stay in the Twin Cities for the summer?” I said, “Well, maybe I’ll do something.” So, somehow or another I got on campus at the University of Minnesota, and I picked up, (raises eyebrows and looks upward-haha, like I’m going to be able to get in), the medical school catalogue, and the department of mortuary science is part of the medical school. So I’m going through the catalogue and it says “mortuary science” and in there it says, you know, the summer courses, and two of the courses were mortuary law and uh, introduction to mortuary science. Thought,“What the hell”? So I signed up and I got accepted at the University and I stayed in the program (smiles). And I graduated in 1967. We got married in July of ‘67, I graduated in June. And I went to work for, at that time there were two Jewish funeral homes in the Twin Cities. And I went to work for Hadroff’s in Minneapolis, which was a very old Jewish funeral home, largest at the time. And I never knew this, but my mother went to college in Minnesota, at McAllister College, and this is the most unbelievable thing, (waves away with hands) you’re gonna fall off your chair. My mother dated Bill Hadroff, that owned the funeral home, and they never, she never told me and he never told me till about three years after I had worked there (smiles).
Interviewer: Oh, how funny.
Epstein: In 1939 and 1940. Isn’t that something (smiles)?
Interviewer: That’s something. It’s a small, small world.
Epstein: I don’t know if that was bashert or not. So I worked at Hadroff’s for ten years. And then I was hired by Service Corporation, which is the largest funeral home provider. And we moved to Florida. And at that time we realized that I would like to be on my own. And I literally started cold-calling funeral homes. Would you be interested in selling? And one was available in Denver and Don Snyder was available in Columbus. And we negotiated and that’s how I came to Columbus.
Interviewer: So you weren’t really intending to go into the funeral business originally, when you got to college?
Epstein: No, not at all. But don’t ask me what I was really going to go into though (smiles). I always, I guess, in the back of my mind, wanted to be a rabbi and my wife said she didn’t want to be a rebbitzin (shrug, smiles), so that pretty well took care of that.
Interviewer: (laughs) That’s great. So tell us a little bit about the transition from Snyder Funeral Home in Columbus to Epstein.
Epstein: Well, it was a very interesting process, because I had come from two funeral homes that were very large institutions, okay? In Minnesota I became the manager of a funeral home and unfortunately (frowns) when I was there, we had four major deaths in the company. (counts on fingers as explains) The two, the owner died, the son died, the brother-in-law died and the mother died (smiles). So it was by (opens hands, shrugs) default, I just sorta moved up real quickly. It was a great learning institution for me. And then I had the privilege of working from a medium sized funeral home to an unbelievable funeral home. You know, we had nine chapels in south Florida. And our volume was, you know, four thousand funerals a year. So (grins) that was quite a transition. And then coming from that type of environment (smiles) to Columbus, Ohio was a very learning experience for my family too. The transition was, as you can appreciate, everybody has their own way of doing things and their own feeling. There were two, there were three transitional periods for our family. (counting on fingers as explains) Number one, the acquisition itself. Number two, the physical move. But the third thing, which is the most difficult, is becoming part of the community, and (open hands and reaching out) how the Jewish community works. Because, as you know, every community has their own little hierarchy. And how you’re going to fit in and become part of that community. Now, fortunately, I was very active and our family has been very active, both in Minnesota and in Florida because that’s part of the responsibility. It’s also part of the “give back” because you have to be very supportive of the Jewish community because the reality is that’s (opens thumbs) where your base is. So, the third thing was the most difficult part of it, and you know, coming with children who were three and six, you know, young children, but we were very fortunate because I had a very close friend who was the Executive Director at Agudas Achim Synagogue and he helped us really make the move very, very palatable and did a tremendous amount for our family.
Interviewer: Who was that?
Epstein: Irwin Weiner. Now I knew Irwin Weiner, he was the Executive Director of the largest synagogue, conservative synagogue in the Twin Cities. So I knew Irwin from St. Paul, Minnesota. So when I knew I was coming to Columbus, I contacted him and he was the one who really did a lot, a lot of help for us, a tremendous amount. He made the move very, very simple, very easy.
Interviewer: All right. So when you came to Columbus (Henry smiles), and you took over, which was, we found this little ad.
Interviewer: 1978, and it was December 21st.
Epstein: Correct (grins).
Interviewer: So almost forty years ago.
Epstein: Yes ma’am.
Interviewer: And Don Snyder had had the funeral home for forty years.
Epstein: Yes, from 1939.
Epstein: (resituates in chair) And it’s, again, it’s very interesting because Don Snyder was a product of Columbus. He was born and raised here. So his indoctrination was no indoctrination. By growing up within the community he knew who was related to who and, you know, (grins, opens hands) where all the bodies were buried, in a sense. Coming in cold, you had to get up and running very, very quickly. And it was, because of the community, very easy for us to do that because I had eleven years of pre-experience beforehand, being active in synagogues or community service work, whether it be again, the two locations that we lived. So it was an easy transition. The other, the other beauty about Columbus is the people themselves. And it’s a welcoming community, it’s a community that’s easy to get involved with, if you’d like. But you have to be motivated and you have to have a desire to give back. And that’s very, very important. In fact, (looks upward) I don’t know any Jewish or non-Jewish funeral director that is not totally involved within his community in one sense or another. And that’s where you need to expend your time with, too. Now it does become somewhat of a balancing act when you have young children and it’s taking them to soccer, or going to a Columbus Historical meeting, I mean, (grappling hand gesture) it’s a balancing act. But it does work out well and our being in Columbus, and I mean this, as a family, allowed us to be successful in our profession. It not a self-serving comment, but it gave us the balance, the stepping stones to make other acquisitions. But our home, our corporate headquarters were, you know, it always has been and always will be Columbus. We’ve not moved off of that mark (smiles).
Interviewer: And you haven’t moved the funeral home.
Epstein: (shakes head) No ma’am.
Interviewer: It’s been the same location for forty years.
Epstein: Everybody says we should move it, but the reality is, it serves the community well. And we have been successful and I truly give the success to the staff, because you would not be able to be in the position that we are today, and I’m talking about all of our acquisitions, if we weren’t very well staffed and managed and providing the service to the community that the community demands. I mean you have to give an excellent type of service to maintain your position in the community. And I’m very, very lucky personally and professionally that we do have an unbelievable staff no matter where we are.
Interviewer: Uh huh
Epstein: And now with the two children coming into the company,(points to Toby) that’s very interesting, because how they look at funeral service is totally much different than my looking at it. And even with the two children (pointing index fingers back and forth), because you have to understand (lining each hand up on thigh) my son came up on a mortuary science grid. (moving straight hands to his left) My daughter came up on an entirely different grid. You know dentistry, not only has a dental degree, (hand gestures) but a post-dental degree, periodontic, so her way of looking at it is much different than my son’s, Mike’s way of looking at it, both how you serve people and internally, the mechanics of the funeral home operation, per se (slight grin) it is absolutely fascinating and I’ll tell ya (points to Toby with one finger) the best thing that’s ever happened to me, we have a home in Minneapolis and both children live in the Twin Cities, (smiles)I get to carpool with my daughter every day going to work. (smiles, points to Toby) That is the mitzvah.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful.
Epstein: Right (nods)
Interviewer: So tell me about those differences. What is different about the funeral home today than the funeral home in Columbus when you started?
Epstein: People, okay? The reality is, and this is sad, when I started out in funeral service, people were different. They were much more caring, they were much more involved, they were much more attentive to the needs. But as we grew and how our society has been changing, we’ve lost some of that, all right? And that is sad. I know when you grew up, people used to sit shiva for three or four, five, seven days. Now shiva is one day, two days at the most. I remember when I started in funeral service, you will not believe this, but it happened, when a death occurred, we went to the family’s house and brought the casket to the house and had the funeral in the house, all right. Now we had to (hand gestures) take the hinges off the doors, (moving hands as if removing hinges) sometimes we had to take a window out of the frame, you know, and come in with that.
Epstein: That’s all changed because that family environment, that family integrity is all gone. And so is our, in a sense, our society, sociologically, and our society’s needs (opening hands).
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Epstein: When I started funeral service, most of our deaths were home deaths. People died in their homes.
Epstein: Today that’s not there anymore. Deaths are in nursing homes, extended care facilities, senior citizen facilities. So how we even die has changed. Now there’s a big movement to try to get back to, you know, home care and other things, but it’s not the way that it was. When someone was sick, they tried to keep them at home as quickly as possible. Today a family wants to get them in the hospitals because they don’t want to deal, unfortunately, unfortunately with a people’s affliction, people’s illness.
Epstein: So that, that has really changed. But I will tell you that it is not unique to Columbus. It’s just the same thing in the other cities we’re in too.
Interviewer: Now when you talk about your kids changing the way of doing business, what sorts of things are they changing?
Epstein: (deep breath, grin), what sort of things are they changing? I came to a funeral service (smiles) with an adding machine, pen and pencil, okay, talking on the phone, visiting with people, shaking hands, et cetera. First of all, (smiles) there’s no more adding machines, there’s no more pen and pencil, so the physical mechanics of how we’re doing our professional business today, the model has changed. The model is continually changing, and I believe my children are running the company. You can’t give a child a Chanukah gift, like an erector set, and if he wants or she wants to build a bridge and you say, “No, you have to build an Eiffel Tower,” so my responsibility now as a senior person, and the children are running the company, and they’re doing an excellent job. So it’s the business side and my daughter on the way you meet and greet people and it’s the worst time of anybody’s life, and the sensitivity to it. But the sad thing is, to me, a lot of times that the families that are coming in, that’s all changed too, and how they perceive death or how they want to show respect to the person who has died, is entirely different than it was five years ago, ten years ago. (gesturing hands as an inward sweep) It’s not that they’re not showing respect, and it’s not that they’re not showing Kavode, (rolling hands around each other) but as a society these things have changed.
Interviewer: Do you see differences at the cemetery as well, once you leave the funeral home?
Epstein: No, because the protocol is depending upon the rabbi. That’s how it is. But it is interesting, because in, as an example in Kansas City, you rarely, rarely have a graveside service. In Minnesota that’s very common. In Columbus, half of them are graveside, half are chapel. So each one of the communities is entirely different on their protocols and how their funeral services are. In Kansas City and in Minneapolis there’s only one Chevra Kaddisha (grin), okay, in Columbus you have multiple Chevra Kaddishas. So again, it’s the “minhag”, the tradition of the community. But basically, (gesturing hands on thigh) Jewish funeral service is the same wherever you go, including the interment. And the interment, fortunately that hasn’t changed. But there’s (opening hands outward) accoutrements that have been added to it. So as an example (clears throat), you may have a funeral today graveside service, where people are going to bring balloons and at the end of the service they’re going to (opens one hand outward) release the balloons or they’re going to bring mourning doves, and the (opens out both hands) doves are going to be released and (move hands at different stopping points in front of him, smiling) you just want to make sure that you’re not standing where the doves are going to be released, okay (laughs). You wanna put the (pushes outward away from himself, smiling) doves out a little bit, so. So you’re dealing with an entirely different society today, a different world. Many of our funerals, (excuse me) you have people bringing in multiple pictures, or they’ll bring in memorabilia from the deceased, maybe their hat, maybe their clothing, whatever, you know, (opens arms) we’ve had a motorcycle brought into the building, uh. We’ve had funerals where people have gone to the cemetery in a horse-drawn hearse. So It’s not the tradition, and I’m not sure what the tradition was before, because everybody today also wants to have somewhat of an individuality, and personalization today in funeral services is very big, very, very big. And once in a while, we’ll have a video before the funeral, the congregation, and I have to tell you, the thing that just, I hate, is they say, (in an animated voice) “Well if you’re seeing this video, that means I’m dead.” You know, I’d just like to turn it off. So the personalization has become very big in our profession and how one wants to remember the deceased is very, very important.
Epstein: Another thing that has happened is when you have multiple people speak at the funeral now. (looking downward, disparagingly) So…right…but the problem is, the box has been opened and there’s no way you can go back. And no matter what you try to do and how the rabbis want to, you know, have a dignified, proper funeral, how do you stop, you know, cousin Moishe who came from Spokane? And then if one child speaks, the other child has to speak, and then the grandchildren speak. So where a funeral probably would be twenty to thirty minutes, now we’re planning an hour and a half as a turn around minimum, because you don’t know what’s going to, what’s going to happen, what’s going to show up. So our internal mechanics has totally changed.
Interviewer: When you first started, aside from, you mentioned Irwin, who else was of great help to you as a pretty young funeral director in Columbus?
Epstein: Well I was very lucky. I came at the exact same time that Harold Berman did (grins), and Howard Apothaker. So the three of us came basically at the same time. And I’ve maintained an extremely close relationship with all three of them. Howard officiated at my children’s wedding, and Art Nemetoff is in Kansas City and I’m very, very close with Art. Art did both children’s weddings. Harold did my son’s wedding. But Howard and Harold and I all came here at the same time, so I guess, (inward round up arm gesture) formed a little clique or whatever you want to call it. And as I say, it’s been an unbelievable closeness over forty years. So you make your own friends, and I have, and again, please this is not self-serving, but that type of personality to go out, I’m not afraid of meeting people. I was very active in the Jewish community here, but I was also very active in my professional community. I was the first Jewish president of any State Association, (raise eyebrows) the Ohio Funeral Directors, and that was a covet to me. I’ve been very active in my National Funeral Directors Associations, and executive or leadership positions, I’m very self-motivated that way.
Epstein: That’s been very important to me.
Interviewer: Did you work a lot with the other funeral homes in Columbus?
Epstein: Well, because, first of all, I was president of our Columbus Funeral Directors Association. And then the State Association, so yes. And Columbus is unique because, although we’re, in the sense competitors, we all respect each person’s (hand gesture), where they’re drawing their people from. I mean its, we’re not trying to go into somebody else’s backyard.
Interviewer: Has Epstein always done non-Jewish funerals as well?
Epstein: Yes. Now that’s very interesting. We are a Jewish funeral home, but we do get calls from the non-Jewish community. But something else that has happened to our community, not just here in Columbus, but throughout the United States, is inter-marrieds. So we do inter-marrieds. I don’t want to say quite a bit, or a lot, but we are doing a lot of inter-marrieds. Something else that is happening which is also very interesting, is people who are non-Jewish who come and see the way we provide funeral service, they like that and they will call us to do a non-Jewish, “Jewish funeral.” And we feel very good about that too. So as I say, our practice has changed. But it’s changed because the Jewish community has changed. We had not gone out to solicit the non-Jewish business, but the non-Jewish business is coming to us. Again, we totally believe because of the service we provide.
Interviewer: In the old days before Don Snyder, I think Cook was probably…
Epstein: Well Cook, Schoedinger, O’Shaughnessy. Okay, O’Shaughnessy and Cook, because that’s where the Jewish people were. And then don’t forget, Schoedinger’s did all the German Jews historically. So that’s how it was divided up. You know, Don Snyder worked a long time to glean that business. It’s very, very interesting, very interesting, the funeral service. Once a family has chosen a funeral home, it’s going to be extremely rare that they’re going to go to another funeral home, all right, unless that funeral home totally screws it up.
Epstein: All right, so a comfortability level with that provider.
Interviewer: Did you, well I’m assuming that of course you did, work closely with all the Chevras in the various congregations.
Epstein: Yes, yes, yes. That’s extremely important. But again, working with them, it’s more than that. It’s the respect of what they do. So it’s respect first, and working second. And you have to maintain a sense of honor and decorum all the time. And I’ve been very lucky to be friends with members of the Chevra Kaddisha wherever I’ve practiced and that’s very, very important. Columbus is a little (clears throat) harder because you have multiple Chevras, where in the other two cities it’s much easier because you know exactly who the go-to person is.
Epstein: And in Columbus, well, they be on vacation, or this one got a hockey, you know, it’s a different environment. Columbus is a different environment than the other two locations, totally.
Interviewer: You’ve worked with generation upon generation of families. Does that give you a…
Epstein: Yes ma’am.
Interviewer: Warm feeling?
Epstein: Well, that’s a very, very interesting question, because I’m at the stage in my life where, you have to understand something, when I first came to Columbus, I came when I was in my thirties. So my friends who were in their thirties were burying their parents in their forties. And then when I got to my fifties or sixties, G-d forbid, there was someone who had a disease that died of my generation. Well, I’m in my seventies and all of a sudden you start thinking about your own mortality (smiles). So I grew from each generation to where I am today. And that takes on a totally different perspective.
Interviewer: What sort of stories, or was there something that was particularly unusual, or I know that a long time ago Don had come in and I’ve seen the video where, you know, he was talking about some of the things when he first started, and he had some just, sort of, interesting stories about starting in the business, and families and things.
Epstein: Well, that’s very interesting because Don’s, I mean in the profession you have to understand, is much different than mine. I never started a funeral home.
Epstein: Okay. I don’t want to start a funeral home, I don’t want to get involved in starting a funeral home. Now I say that, but I’m involved in something that I’m very lucky with.
I have two friends who are married and they live in Las Vegas and they started a Jewish funeral home in Las Vegas and I became very involved with them. I have no financial interest in it, it’s just a friendship that developed. And one of the women who started the funeral home is, worked at the Jewish Community Center in Columbus, Laura Sussman.
Interviewer: She’s my age.
Epstein: Okay so her funeral home is Krass-Sussman Funeral Home in Las Vegas.
Interviewer: Oh interesting.
Epstein: Now I helped them. I became their mentor, all right? But that’s the only time I ever was starting something. And they have been SO successful! But the reason they became successful is because of the warmth and the humanity they show to the Las Vegas community. And they have outgrown their expectations to where they are today. And it’s wonderful. So that’s the only time I was ever involved in a periphery basis, of starting. I don’t want to start that. It’s not my forte. I want to make an acquisition. I enjoy acquisitions. You know financially where you are right away with acquisitions, it’s much easier getting a bank loan for an acquisition. So no, Don’s, I give a lot of credit to Don, a lot of respect for Don for what he did. He saw a niche in the marketplace and became successful at it.
Epstein: Our forte is taking what we purchased and making it better. And that, again, we’ve been very successful at. We really have. I have a staff member in Columbus that has been with me since 1980. All right, think about that. My manager in Minneapolis has been at that funeral home since ‘81. My manager in Kansas City has been with the company twenty-three years. So…
Interviewer: Very comforting for the community.
Epstein: It’s comforting for the community, but it’s more comforting for the Epstein family, trust me.
Epstein: Seriously, so that’s the type of staffing we have. And we have been very lucky and very successful with that.
Interviewer: What can you tell me about the cemeteries and the growth of the cemeteries?
Epstein: Well that’s very interesting, because again, where you are within the communities. In the Twin Cities as an example, the Jewish cemeteries have now opened up areas for inter-marrieds, okay. They also opened up an area for cremains, for cremations. So that’s changed. And why has it changed? Because our community has changed.
Interviewer: Do you see that happening in Columbus at some point?
Epstein: Well, that’s a really good question. If ya turned off the camera I’d give you an answer but I…
Epstein: No, but it’s, again, Columbus is a different community than the Twin Cities. It’s a different community than Kansas City. I don’t wanna say it’s gonna happen, or it’s gonna have to happen, or it will happen, but if these cemeteries do not make accommodation, then the Jewish people are going to go to a non-denominational cemetery for that accommodation. That’s the cost of, the cost of that. I’m sorry.
Epstein: You have to, today, as you know, doing what you do, you must be proactive and not retroactive. And if you’re not proactive, you’re not gonna be in the game.
Interviewer: Right. Did you do any funerals where the people were buried at Mt. Calvery?
Epstein: Not recently. But we do once in a while go to like, cemeteries that a Jewish or non-Jewish spouse will be in and put the Jewish spouse there. You know. The inter-married couple has bought ground at a non… Forest Lawn has a Jewish section for Temple Israel. But there were many times when I was here that I was in the non-Temple Israel section for burials. As an example, in the columbarians, et cetera. So yes, we do go into the non-Jewish sections and you know, sometimes that’s just where Jewish people want to be buried. I’ve learned, the first day when I walked into Hadroff’s, August 1st, 1967, not to tell somebody how to make Shabbos. And I have to tell you, I have never forgotten that.
Interviewer: And what happened?
Eptein: Because people in their own mind, are going to know what they want when it comes to a time like this. Okay, you can suggest, you can guide, but the reality is they wanna do what they wanna do.
Interviewer: Uhhuh, and you’re there to accommodate that.
Epstein: To the best of our ability, yes. And that if it’s within the rules and regulations of the state that we’re in, abide by their wishes, that’s legal. There are many times I’ve run into some interesting situations, but again, YOU are in charge. But I want to be in charge here (sets hand low), not here (sets hand high). I want to be below the radar. This is not our parade, this is not our show. We want to help the family get through the worst time of their life. And to provide the best service that we possibly can. Now, are we always successful at that? No. But nobody is, and we realize that. But again, we try to rectify right away if there’s a mistake. Now the interesting thing is internally we may recognize the mistake, outwardly the family and the population doesn’t know.
Interviewer: Okay. Have you dealt a lot with an indigent Jewish population?
Epstein: Yes, in all three cities. In all three cities it’s handled differently. The unfortunate thing is, this is just MY feeling, I think we’re having more indigent funerals than we’ve had before. I’m not quite sure why, I’m not quite sure what’s happened, but I feel that there’s just, we are providing more indigent services. Not that it’s going up, but as our society, as our society ages that goes along with it, if you understand what I’m saying. So let’s say, last year we did a hundred and fifty funerals in Columbus and we had ten indigent, and this year we do a hundred and sixty and we have eleven indigent. So as our (coughs), excuse me, as our volume goes up, our indigent percentage does too. (drinks water)
Interviewer: Right. Is there a burial fund, does the community provide for that?
Epstein: Yes. Each community does, except in the state of Minnesota. The state of Minnesota pays for indigent funerals.
Interviewer: Oh, interesting.
Epstein: Yes it is very interesting, extremely interesting, because dealing with a state agency on paying for funerals is very interesting. So yeah, each community has a fund for indigent burials.
Interviewer: Okay, so that’s maintained by the Jewish community?
Epstein: No, it, in Kansas City and Columbus, it’s done by the Jewish Family Service. They’re the governing agency because they’re the ones who vet the people. And then will call us and say, “Uh, Shlomo Kohn has been vetted and we will take care of the funeral”. Now once in a while a family will come in and say, “We have no means” and they weren’t able to get to JFS, then we’ll just provide the service. So no one will ever go without a proper Jewish funeral. Now the trouble we’re having today is, what’s a proper Jewish funeral? That’s, that’s my biggest “mishigas”. Because what you and I may think may be proper, they don’t think it’s proper.
Interviewer: And how do you work through that with all these, with these people that have their own vision?
Epstein: You just set your pen down on the table and talk it through. And work with them and what we can provide and what we can do to help them and where you want to go, where they want to be. It’s just a give and take, it’s negotiation. But sometimes people have unrealistic demands and requests and sometimes you just can’t fulfill ‘em, that’s all,..
Interviewer: Have you ever had anyone ask if their animal can be buried with them in a Jewish cemetery?
Epstein: All the time, sure, absolutely, absolutely. You’d be surprised what I put in caskets, seriously, seriously. You know, golf clubs, cigarettes, a deck of cards, old army uniforms, everybody likes to put pictures, pictures. We’ve dressed people in, you know, Kansas City Royals outfits, you know, baseball. You know, it’s… people are human. People have needs and wants, and desires. So as a professional you have to do that with dignity and proper respect, and also in Judaism, what would be proper religiously.
Epstein: Now we always ask a rabbinical authority, so the onus is also going to be back on them. I don’t ever want to be in a situation THAT, again you do your best.
Interviewer: So in those cases, in an Orthodox burial
Epstein: You may not have the request.
Epstein: Now, we said that, it’ll happen.
Epstein: Nothing is black and white, but if we went back twenty years, it would never happen.
Interviewer: Right, right. Do you know anything about the founding of, have you ever hear any of the stories about how the Agudas Achim, how the Parkway was purchased?
Epstein: The land originally? Uh, I was told that was donated by people at the synagogue. And that’s when, you know, old Tifereth Israel is there, the old Ahavas Sholom is there. The cemeteries are there. I was told that was donated because they couldn’t build anything there, whatever the reason was. So it was donated to the synagogue and turned, flipped, to the cemeteries.
Epstein: That was my “mishigas” back then, that’s when I was…
Interviewer: That’s the Parkway one, not the Alum creek one?
Epstein: Yes, yes, yes, right,
Interviewer: Interesting, okay.
Epstein: It became donated land. Now I was involved, when I was active at Temple Israel with the purchase of the grave space at Forest Lawn and then Tanny Feer and I, from Temple Israel helped establish the new cemetery on Refugee Road and Performance Parkway now. So I still call it Refugee Road, but it’s Performance Parkway.
Epstein: So that’s how we got out to where the other Jewish cemeteries were, because we were literally, not running out of space, but a lot of people wanted to be buried, were members of a temple and said their family may have come from Agudas Achim or Beth Jacob, wanted to go out to that area. So I was involved in both the new Temple Israel cemeteries, the one that went out to Forest Lawn and then the one that went out to Performance Parkway.
Interviewer: Right, okay, are there any other people in particular who have helped you along the way that you would comment on or that you would remember?
Epstein: I think everybody that I’ve met in my life has helped me in one way or another. I’m an equal opportunity acceptor of help. You can’t, you can’t be successful today if you don’t remember where you came from, all right? You have to go back and when I think about how I got here, is each person affected my life in a certain way. So no one is more important than the other. My parents more important than Bill Hadroff, when I was in Minneapolis or Al Gordon when I was in Florida, no. Irwin Weiner when I was here or Harold or Howard, no. I mean it’s, everybody played a part in my success, so…
Interviewer: Okay. Now when did you leave Columbus?
Epstein: Believe it or not, nineteen years ago yesterday. No, three days before, because my daughter was, anniversary was yesterday. We left Columbus like on the 14th of December, nineteen years ago.
Interviewer: Wow, this is a, there are a lot of anniversaries right around now.
Epstein: Always a lot of anniversaries. So yes, so that’s when I left, but I never really left. We have an apartment here. My son, you know, is always back here. But I’m back here about every twenty-one to thirty days. My name is on the door, my family’s name is on the door. It’s not me anymore, it’s my family’s name on the door. It’s family-owned and run and operated. And the buck stops with my family. David is an unbelievable manager. But if there’s going to be something, it’s going back to us.
Interviewer: Right. And how did you make the decision to leave Columbus?
Epstein: Because I wanted to grow, and I wanted to provide for my family and those that die with the most toys win. No, I’m very, at one time in my life, I owned six funeral homes, okay. I want to be in acquisitions, I don’t want to be acquired, so you have to continue to grow and you have to not ever be stagnant. Now we sold two of them, two of the six funeral homes, but the reality is. I guess I’m very progressive that way. It’s like the man who said, “Why do you rob the banks”? Cause that’s where the money is. The opportunity came up to purchase Kansas City and Michael came, was with us in Columbus, and I could see Michael when I, it’s a small office. So Clarice and I decided that we would move to Columbus, I mean to Kansas City and then four years after, and never in my life did I ever think Minneapolis/St. Paul would become available. And we made that acquisition and that, to me, that was really coming home. I have to say something, every time I drive into that, those funeral homes, there’s two in the Twin Cities, it says “Hadroff-Epstein”, I still can’t believe it says “Epstein”, and I mean that. So that became in my own life, my crown jewel, and it is, because it’s a very large operation. So that’s how we left Columbus. It wasn’t, it wasn’t cause we had terrible, I mean it was just, the opportunity presented itself and I had to take the opportunity, and if something else comes up again, I guarantee ya, we’ll take the opportunity. And you are always out looking for new acquisitions. You have to be today. Again, I don’t want to be stagnant, the children don’t want to be stagnant. It’s a continual re-education and as I say, I’m so lucky with the kids being in the company. And that’s our family success.
Interviewer: What else is there that you would like to say about being in Columbus and this business in Columbus?
Epstein: We’re not going anywhere. It’s a Columbus institution. It’ll be a Columbus institution. It’ll be here after I’m gone. I see no reason why it won’t and I think Columbus is a great environment for us. It’s a great Jewish environment, it’s becoming more of a Jewish environment. And there’s a tremendous amount of growth and potential here. It shows by the growth of the, you know, the community per se. So it’s very successful and I enjoy it. I do miss Columbus. I miss Columbus very much. You don’t live some place for as long as we had and not miss it. The friends that are here, et cetera. So it’s always beautiful to come back here and I try to spend as much time here as I can. But then the sad thing is, and as you know, you coming back, you can never go home again, all right? So once the United Van Line pulled out and I was seventy, it’s never going to come back. Now the interesting thing is, I can go out of my driveway in Kansas City, this is unbelievable, and make a right-hand turn, another right hand turn, drive to Interstate 70 and get off at James Road and I’m in Bexley in ten hours.
Interviewer: Door to door.
Epstein: Right, seriously. Ten hours, I’m back and forth.
Epstein: So I do miss Columbus a lot. I really do.
Interviewer: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about the business, or about your life in Columbus, your family that i?
Epstein: I will tell you something though, that has happened that is very sad to me. In Minneapolis this year, are you ready for this? We have had twelve to fifteen suicides, okay? All right? anywhere from fourteen years old to mid-sixties.
Interviewer: Wow oh my!
Interviewer: And what would you have in a typical year?
Epstein: Not as many as that. We don’t know if it’s an anomoly, we don’t know what it is, but it’s a tragedy upon tragedy. We had people who, and as you know, it has nothing, because of the socioeconomic welfare of the community, it has nothing to do, we don’t think, with that. We just don’t know, I don’t know if it’s the environment. I don’t know if it’s the world we live in, I don’t know if it’s just stuff going on in Minnesota. But it’s everything. It’s drugs, it’s guns, it’s murder. I mean It’s just things that I started out in funeral service when you asked at the beginning, and what we’re dealing with today. It’s a whole different society, a different world. You have to, to become successful, you have to learn how to adapt to the environment. And we’ve been very successful doing that. But I mean, how do I explain to my granddaughter that last man hung himself in his closet? But how does any parent?
Epstein: So, I didn’t mean to end it on a down note like that, but you asked what is my biggest challenge. My biggest challenge is dealing with the changing Jewish community, because we are changing, and anyone who doesn’t think we are, is living in the past.
Interviewer: Well, thank you.
Epstein: You’re welcome, thank YOU.
Interviewer: On behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project. And this concludes the interview.