Friday, May 16, 1997 | return to: local


Jewish `Renaissance man’ takes Torah, seder to Catholic school

by LORI EPPSTEIN, Bulletin Staff

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While Jews and Christians share connections beyond the Old Testament, no one at St. Mary's College in Moraga suspected that a Jewish dean would invigorate spiritual life there.

Certainly not just any Jewish dean would attend Catholic Masses, promote interfaith Jewish observances and hang a mezuzah on his office door at a Catholic campus. But Edwin M. Epstein would.

In fact, last week's third annual Yom HaShoah event -- a campus tradition Epstein started -- marks the professor's third year as dean of St. Mary's School of Economics and Business Administration and also as a spiritual leader unlike any the college has had.

"Ed is sort of a Renaissance man whose interests always go beyond what would be the normal scope of any job he would have," said Christian Brother Stan Sobczyk, an assistant to the president.

"This is a [Jewish] man who walked wide-eyed into a Catholic institution and felt that his religious convictions would not only be respected but sought. "

While such convictions might have been presumptuous in a small private college whose undergraduate student body of 2,150 includes only a dozen or so Jews, it didn't stop the 60-year-old former UC Berkeley professor from spreading enthusiasm for his faith.

Soon after he was hired, Epstein organized the campus' first Yom HaShoah observance, which drew dozens of students to four days of lectures, a potluck dinner and an interfaith service. He persuaded fellow administrators to add a Judaic studies course to the curriculum and delivered a paper to Catholic educators on Catholic social thought from a Jewish perspective.

Last month, wearing a colorfully embroidered kippah and brandishing a kiddush cup from home, he officiated at the school's first interfaith seder.

Epstein's colleagues say the dean is respected first for his international expertise in business. Clearly, he was eminently qualified and the academic senate was thrilled to receive him, said academic vice president William Hynes.

The Berkeley professor also possessed a disarming charm.

"He moves right in on you, listens intently and asks hard questions," Sobczyk said.

"The college really rolled out the carpet for him," noted 50-year St. Mary's professor Benjamin Frankel, who is Jewish. "They had never done that for any other dean."

Faculty and students joke that Epstein must be a man of God, because on campus he seems nearly omniscient.

"He pops up at all kinds of campus activities. You see him everywhere you go," Frankel said.

Whether leading students in Jewish observance or hobnobbing in his black-and-white tuxedo at faculty club parties, Epstein has quickly won over faculty and students alike.

Epstein says there's no secret to his style; It's in the Torah.

"The concept of justice and the notion of what constitutes a leader has a very specific Jewish dimension," he explains. "The leader is one of the people."

He hearkens to the Exodus story, where Jethro advises his son-in-law Moses to delegate tasks to others so that he can focus on being a teacher. So Moses instructed the Israelites on God's commandments. He showed trusted leaders how to function as an administrative bureaucracy.

Epstein said any organizational theorist or management consultant would recognize the good sense in Jethro's advice.

Epstein takes that advice to heart in academic planning by involving community members as well as faculty. He has secured extra money for faculty development, imparts a feeling of collegiality and constantly strives to safeguard "a liberal arts ethos" on campus, his colleagues say.

"To me, leadership is the concept of the servant leader -- someone who doesn't do it through authoritarian means but [is] fair and basic to the best of what Jewish values bring to bear," Epstein said.

Whatever it is, students in particular have noticed the difference on campus.

"As soon as he came to St. Mary's I started feeling more Jewish," said Shai Zemach, an international business law undergraduate who preceded Epstein's arrival. "He has been my connection with Judaism. Aside from him, there hasn't been any Jewish atmosphere on campus."

The law student added that Epstein also helped him to plan for law school in Israel.

Epstein's Jewish fever has been just as contagious among the campus ministry, members of which have begun to orchestrate some of his events. In turn, their enthusiasm for Jewish observance may have inspired Lutheran and Episcopalian students to host additional religious activities on campus, remarked Joseph Subbiondo, dean of the School of Liberal Arts.

"We're living in a post-Vatican II era," Subbiondo said, referring to the new era of Catholic acceptance toward other religions that followed the landmark Vatican II papal conference in the early 1960s.

"It's one thing for a Catholic university to talk about ecumenical spirit," Subbiondo said. "It's another thing to have someone who really represents it. What Ed has been able to do is start [a Jewish] tradition at St. Mary's."

Copyright Notice (c) 1997, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


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