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Monday, February 27, 2017

Eulogy for Mort Epstein

On Wednesday, February 22, 2017, Mort Epstein, longtime supporter and friend of The City Club of Cleveland passed away at the age of 90. Joining in 1998, Mort served on the City Club's Board from 2008-2017 and Forum Foundation Board from 1998-2007, serving as the latter's President between 2000 and 2003. He was a prodigious fundraiser for the City Club and a strong supporter of its student programming, particularly The Jeffrey David Epstein Memorial Student Fund, named for his son. His father was also a charter member of The City Club of Cleveland. 

Originally delivered February 24, 2017. Reposted with permission from the author.

Psalm 90 tells us that the normative life span “is three score years and ten or, by reason of strength, four score years.” We gather today to honor the memory and celebrate the life of Mort Epstein, who lived to be four score years and ten – a very strong man indeed. Strong of character, principles, and integrity. Strong of mind, will and purpose. Strong of love, loyalty, and devotion to his family and community. Mort was truly a giant, not just a strong man, but even more importantly, a good and decent one.

A Cleveland native, Mort graduated from Heights High, attended Ohio State, Adelbert College and Cleveland State, before going into the family business, then called National Paper and Twine and, later, National Paper and Packaging, that his father had founded. There, he worked with his two brothers, two nephews, and two of his three sons, Jon and Jeffrey.

Jon recalls that, in business, Mort always showed and expected respect for and from others. He enjoyed warm, interpersonal relations both with those who called on him and those who worked with and for him. Mort was more than a boss; he was a mentor who liked to show others the ropes and guide them in their endeavors. He genuinely cared about the lives and families of his fellow workers. It wasn’t all business with him.

Mort’s wise, skillful, and gentle guidance extended well beyond the company. He was a valued mentor to his and Natalie’s sons. Howard recalls their weekly Saturday visits that began at the barbershop, continued to the office, where he and, in later years, his brothers might be assigned minor tasks, then on to lunch.  They traveled either on the Rapid, which was a special experience, or by car. When it was the latter, they would always listen to the broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

When Howard took up a paper route, Mort taught him how to open a bank account and balance a checkbook. As the years progressed, Mort’s mentoring transitioned to helping make sound decisions about education, career choices, and community volunteering, giving, and leadership, in which Howard has so impressively followed in his father’s footsteps.

Those footsteps were large, indeed. At various times, Mort served on the boards, among others, of: Menorah Park; University Circle, Inc.; Jewish Family and Children’s Services, of which he was president and oversaw creation of a drop in center for teens, a safe space to hang out in a drug free environment; Mt. Sinai Hospital, of which he also served as president; Jewish Federation of Cleveland; Cuyahoga Community College Foundation; David and Inez Myers Foundation; Oakwood Club; National Conference of Christians and Jews, now the National Conference for Community and Justice; Case Medical School steering committee; Hopewell; City Club of Cleveland of which his father was a charter member; and The Temple – Tifereth Israel, where he grew up and which he loved, where all the clergy loved him, and where he was very involved in virtually every major project over the years, including the presidency of its Mens Club. He was close to and a great admirer of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, even making reel to reel tapes of Rabbi Silver’s lectures at Mens Club retreats. Mort also enthusiastically supported Natalie’s vast engagement and leadership at The Temple over many years, and he promoted diversity and inclusion in Temple leadership, rabbinic and lay.

When I became Senior Rabbi of The Temple in the Spring of 2001, selected by a search committee that Natalie co-chaired, Mort was still very active in the community and at The Temple, including the latter’s Budget and Finance Committee, where he always asked pertinent, probing questions – as he did in every organization in which he was involved, and in every aspect and relationship of his life.

Deservedly, Mort was widely admired. Such was the high regard in which he was held, that he was asked to serve as Foreman of the Cuyahoga County Grand Jury, followed by Natalie and Gregg who served in the same role. And that admiration was broadly felt and multigenerational. As one example, upon learning of Mort’s death, Rob Wiesenberger, more than a half century younger than he, wrote, “Mort was absolutely extraordinary. I did not know him well, but somehow, seeing him over the years, he looms so large for me – for his kindness, his intellect, his generosity, his civic-mindedness. Everything good and noble about the City Club of Cleveland I saw embodied in him. The [news that he died] was devastating to [receive]. How lucky we all were, and the city was, to have Mort.” For countless people, Mort was there, with wise counsel, unstinting support, public philanthropy and private generosity, a model of distinguished leadership and impeccable integrity.

Many of Mort’s evenings were spent out in the community, but he was always home for dinner, even if it was an abbreviated one, because family was a first priority for Mort. The story of that family begins at Roosevelt Junior High School in Cleveland Heights, that he attended with an intelligent, personable, and attractive classmate, Natalie Zuckerman. Mort and Natalie began dating at Heights High when they were 15 ½. Natalie remembers her high school sweetheart as very nice looking and self-confident, with a sense of solidity and security, a good person, and her dad thought Mort was terrific.

If ever there was a marriage that was bashert, Yiddish for “meant to be,” it was Mort and Natalie. Natalie recalls an occasion, early in their courtship, when she was sitting on the stoop of her family home. Mort and his parents drove by, and he pointed at her and said something to them. She later learned that what he said was, “See that girl? I’m going to marry her.”

Mort and Natalie started going steady as freshman at Ohio State and were married at The Temple on March 30, 1947. Theirs was only the second wedding ceremony conducted in the Main Sanctuary at Ansel Road, where such events had theretofore not normally been held. Rabbi Silver gave his reluctant permission after Natalie, clearly Mort’s equal in self-confidence, told the rabbi, “It’s either the Main Sanctuary or a church!” Ironically, at the last moment, Rabbi Silver was unable to officiate because he was grounded in Tripoli, so they were married by Rabbi Julius Nodel. They were twenty years old.

As Natalie came to know her new husband, she found him to be very principled, always loving and devoted, and a wonderful father who adored their sons. For seven decades, they had each other, each the other’s one, lifetime love, their marriage “a love match from beginning to end.” Each allowed the other to grow and become their own person, each of them supporting the other’s own interests, always by each other’s side. Mort’s death came just 4 weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary.

Mort and Natalie’s marriage was wonderful, but not free of heartache. The tragic death of their son, Jeffrey, and its aftermath, were devastating, shaking them to the core. But they knew that they needed each other’s support, then more than ever, and that they had two other sons who needed their love and attention.

When Howard came out in his 30’s, it took a while for Mort to come to terms with it. It wasn’t a matter of prejudice, but of his concern that Howard would face unnecessary obstacles and hurdles. All the while, however, Mort gave Howard unconditional love and respect, respect that even grew as he saw Howard become fully his true self. And Mort loved Howard’s partner, now his husband, Gregg, very much.

And Gregg loved Mort in return. Mort influenced Gregg’s life in three major ways. As a young business executive, Gregg needed to manage people, navigate complex situations, and deal with different bosses and companies. Mort served as a cherished sounding board and advisor, gently challenging and guiding him. As a pillar of the community, Mort knew how to give, get involved, and lead. He urged and taught Howard and Gregg to widen their horizons, to expand their engagement and giving beyond the gay community, in which they were already passionately engaged, to the Jewish and general communities, where they are now so deeply involved. And as spouses, partners, and leaders of the family, Mort, and his beloved Natalie, served as inspiring role models, sticking together and persevering through thick and thin, forging the kind of relationship to which Gregg and Howard aspire. Jon’s spouse, Marty, likewise found Mort wonderfully warm and accepting, he loved and admired him, and enjoyed their many intellectual discussions of business and world affairs.

Among the lessons Mort taught his sons and sons-in-law were: Don’t back down from a challenge. Never be ashamed of who you are. Family matters most. And, be slow to judge others. True to these principles, Mort was not quick to judge people, or to leap to conclusions, or make impulsive decisions. He was a great listener who rarely spoke negatively of others. On the rare occasions he did, it was in private, to Natalie, and normally couched in terms of disappointment rather than outright disapproval.

Mort encouraged people to think and speak positively. He liked good jokes but couldn’t tell them, and admitted it. He wasn’t a good golfer, but he enjoyed the companionship. He played bridge and loved to watch sports. He was a voracious reader and listener in regard to current events; he was well-informed and had strong feelings about issues, especially those that had a business impact in N.E. Ohio. He was a fiscal Republican, but on social issues, a liberal Democrat.

In the final analysis, Mort’s foremost commitments were to his family and community. He always put the needs, interests, and concerns of others before his own. Even as his health, energy, mobility, and quality of life declined, Mort’s deepest impulse was to protect and help his loved ones. As always, he thought ahead and wanted to be prepared. Though he realized that he was “going downhill,” Mort summoned his remaining strength. He was remarkably courageous and non-complaining, even when he was in pain, and, though reluctant to accept the increasing restrictions and need for care by others, at each stage he came to accept what he realized he must. As always, he and Natalie shared and discussed everything. As they had for a lifetime, Natalie assured Mort, “We will get through this together.” And they did. In doing so, they were blessed with the loving, devoted care of Patrick Harris and Patrick’s daughter, Natasha, Sierra Barnes, and Dominique Morton, to whom the family is immensely grateful.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read, “A good name is more precious than the finest oil.”  And Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Sages, teaches us, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of sovereignty. But the crown of a good name surpasses them all.” Mort Epstein lived a long, fulfilling, and meritorious life. He earned the love, admiration, and gratitude of countless people, including Susie and me, whom he and Natalie embraced with characteristic warmth and generosity of spirit. When all is said and done, Mort earned the ultimate accolade, the crown of a good name.

Jewish tradition teaches that we live on in many ways after our physical death. We live on in children and loved ones. We live on in the memory of those to whom we were precious. We live on in the acts of goodness and kindness we perform and that bless the lives of others, often in ways we never know. We live on in the worthy deeds that others perform when they are inspired by our example. We live on in the causes and institutions in which we invest our talents, energy, and substance, and that are more significant and more enduring than our individual, fleeting, sometimes lonely and perplexed selves. And we live on in the eternal embrace of our loving God, who gives us life, and, in whose power, all is possible. In all these ways, Mort will continue to live among us, a good man whose good name will remain an inspiration. Zecher Tsadik Liv’racha – May Mort’s memory always be our blessing.

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