By Stephanie Goodling
Iris Epstein’s parents “came from humble beginnings,” as she puts it, but went on to be successful not only in their business but also in the way that matters most--passing down their values to their daughter.
“I always felt the need to pay it forward. I always try to give back -- that’s my upbringing. I feel that’s what drives me as a person, their teaching that you always have to appreciate what you have and give back to the community,” Epstein explained. “That’s kind of who I am.”
Epstein is a steadfast volunteer who gives selflessly to the Lehigh Valley Jewish community in multiple ways. Having moved here after marrying her husband, Jonathan, son of Roberta and Jeff, and joining the Epstein clan, she is proud of the deep roots her family has in the area and that her two sons are now the fifth generation of Epsteins to live in the Lehigh Valley. They are active with Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, where Epstein loves being very involved in the life of the congregation.
She has also been involved with the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley since the beginning of her time here.
“My parents have always given to and been involved, so it was just a natural organization to become involved in, and the Epsteins were, too. When I first got here, my mother-in-law was receiving the Daniel Pomerantz Award for Campaign Excellence,” said Epstein.
Epstein quickly was recruited to serve on a committee within Women’s Philanthropy, and within the next year she was a co-chair. Soon, she was slowly making her way through the Women’s Division, the Board of Directors, and the Executive Board, helping the Annual Campaign for Jewish Needs however she could. She’s gone on to win many awards of her own, including the George Feldman Achievement Award for Young Leadership. Most recently, she’s served on the National Young Leadership Cabinet, which Epstein calls a “life-changing event.”
“I've just loved seeing firsthand where the dollars that I work so hard to raise go, not just here but nationally and in Israel and around the world. I’ve had the opportunity of meeting people who are so appreciative of even a dollar of what we raise and how that can really change their life. It really does,” said Epstein. “My favorite story is of this young boy who could have been my own child. We went shopping for him. His favorite thing was Nutella, it was such a treat for him.
We found out he enjoyed soccer and quickly ran out to buy him a soccer ball. Two years later, when I returned to visit again, he still had the same soccer ball. Stories like this one really give me chills. We have such a huge impact on lives.”
Epstein has recently made the decision to ensure her impact goes even further by formalizing a legacy gift through the Lehigh Valley Jewish Foundation.
“It’s so easy to do it when you're young. You’re not necessarily giving money now, it’s an after death gift if that’s easier for you. I’m very proud of the vehicle Federation was able to partner with me to complete. Not only am I giving to organizations that are meaningful to me, Jewish organizations as well as non-Jewish ones, but also one of the things that is so important to me is that I’m building a legacy for my children,” said Epstein. “They're their own people, obviously, but I want them to learn to also give. They’re growing up very differently than the way I grew up. With technology and everything, it’s very easy to be engrossed in that. I want them to have their feet on the ground and realize how lucky they are. So, I’ve designated a portion of my legacy gift for them to give. That’s how you’re going to learn to be a giver, is to make decisions yourself.”
Epstein balances her role as a parent, passing down values and serving on the board of the school parent-teacher organization, with that of her own needs and roles with Federation, the synagogue and elsewhere. She is grateful for the tight-knit community she gets to do life in.
“There's always someone there for you when you need someone, that’s the beauty of living in such a close community. The closeness of the community and how everyone cares about one another is what makes the Lehigh Valley Jewish community special” according to Epstein. She hopes that it will stay that way in the future.
“My hope is that when my kids come back and live here or my grandkids are here, that the community will not have changed negatively, that it will only grow. That there will be a JCC, a day school, a JFS and vibrant synagogues,” she said.
If it’s up to Epstein, there certainly will be.
“Iris is an amazing asset to the community. I can’t imagine where we would be without her dedicated spirit,” said Federation Executive Director Jeri Zimmerman.
The feeling is mutual for Epstein.
“I’m thankful for Federation because I feel that I’ve grown as a person because of all the opportunities that this organization has given me, and I truly feel that it is a give and take. There are days when I can say I’ve gotten more from what I give than what I actually get,” she said.
As she reflected in her Feldman award speech a few years ago, “Many friends, acquaintances and even my own husband have frequently asked me why I volunteer as much as I do. It’s simple really. Not only are we commanded by Torah to give charity and help the poor, but I want to emulate my parents and help others less fortunate than me as my parents have done for me and others.”
Rabbi Seth Phillips of KI commends Epstein for her hard work.
"Iris is the hardest working member of any organization she is a part of, and a proud and knowledgeable member of the Jewish people. Iris always sees the 'WE' in any situation," he said.