Philanthropist Gene Epstein pledges to donate a 1,000-tree forest
Planted in conjunction with the Jewish National Fund-USA, the trees will be in the name of the first thousand purchasers of his newest book, Lemon Juice
By STEFAN OBERMAN
“I’m selfish!” proclaimed prominent US philanthropist and Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) major donor, Gene Epstein, referring to the sense of satisfaction he derives from his charitable work. “It’s the most rewarding thing you can do,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling knowing you’ve changed someone’s life, whether it’s for a day, a month or permanently. It’s something you just don’t ever want to stop doing.”Epstein wasn’t born into wealth. Growing up in north Philadelphia, Epstein recalls his Jewish grandparent’s modestly sized candy store. “I used to love going to work and scooping the ice cream on hot summer days.” Despite his grandparent’s modest income, they were the largest contributor to the local Catholic Church. During one shift, Gene asked his grandmother how she could donate so much of her income to the church, and she replied: “Well, if we can put food on the table for ourselves, and if we’ve paid our bills and other expenses, how can we possibly sit by and have the people next door to us go hungry?” For Gene, this epiphanic moment has stayed with him since and has arguably been the driving force behind his lifelong philanthropic mission.A few years later, at the age of 16 and with his mother’s home facing foreclosure, the growingly entrepreneurial teenager borrowed $50 from her to buy a used car, which he then sold the following day, tripling his investment. Gene’s evolution from an ice cream scooper and small time used car dealer who would do almost anything no matter how daring or scary, to major U.S. philanthropist and successful businessman is revealed with great humor in his latest book, Lemon Juice: The confessions of a used car dealer – a metamorphosis. The book vividly illustrates Gene’s trials and tribulations in the dynamic and at times brazen world of the new and used car industry.Gene could be referred to as a “philanthropic entrepreneur.” In the early days, he admits to feeling conflicted in knowing that his charitable good deeds were garnering positive PR for his companies and in turn, driving up business. Yet, as he explains in Lemon Juice, he found reassurance in the advice from a highly respected retired US Army Air Force colonel who explained over lunch one day: “When you’re doing something good and changing someone’s life for the better, who gets hurt if you get publicity for it? If you do get publicity for your charitable work, you would probably make more money – and knowing you – the more money you make – the more you would want to give away to help others. By getting publicity, you are setting an example for others to follow. But when it’s done anonymously, there is no person to lead the way.”Gene never looked back from that moment, and rather than give anonymously, he has often aimed to amplify his philanthropic giving by offering organizations a “matched fundraising challenge,” by agreeing to donate a certain amount to their organization as long as some or all of his donation is matched by other donors.Epstein feels immense pride in his Jewish heritage, yet the majority of his philanthropic dollars have gone toward non-Jewish causes. Gene argues that “It’s not in despite of being Jewish, it’s because I’m Jewish that I feel an obligation to help our non-Jewish brethren.”“I always felt that if I can be an example of a Jew doing positive things for non-Jews, then that is one more way to fight anti-Semitism and ignorance.” Gene has been known to don a Santa Claus suit at his Christmas events for sick children, while spending time providing support for Jewish families just days earlier for Hanukkah. In addition, Gene has gone on to found many not-for-profit organizations including Hire Just One, an initiative he started with $250,000 of his own money that encourages businesses to hire again by making a $1,000 donation to charity when a business hires an unemployed person and keeps him or her on the payroll for six months.Gene’s lifelong passion for philanthropy is almost matched by his lifelong relationship with cars. In fact, Gene’s involvement with JNF came through a JNF car tour between London and Jerusalem that raised money for the construction of a new water reservoir in Israel. The tour wound its way through Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries, ending in Israel.Gene recalls a number of times he connected with his Jewish heritage during the tour: “We visited a synagogue in Italy that had been closed for 50 years. When I opened the doors of the Ark and saw the dusty Torah, I burst into tears with the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. There were reporters and a TV news crew who followed my wife and me throughout the journey and I think most of the footage was just of me crying at every site!” Gene muses that had it not been for his love of old cars, he may never have become involved with JNF.Gene’s escapades in Lemon Juice seem antithetical to the reputation he now enjoys as a respected philanthropist and community leader, yet, perhaps it was the ‘rough-and-tumble’ experience of the automotive and real estate worlds where he was a witness, and sometimes a part of shocking experiences, that allowed him to see the immense good he could achieve by giving people not only handouts, but hand-ups.Gene’s intention for Lemon Juice is that it will inspire others to succeed in business and philanthropy. His message to up-and-coming philanthropists is simple: “There should be nothing you can’t overcome. If you have a desire to accomplish a goal, even with hurdles in your way, if you’re determined, you can figure out a way to navigate around all obstacles.” He clarifies, however, that all success is relative. “It’s not just financial! Some of the happiest people I know don’t have money – they just help others. And I know wealthy people who aren’t happy and who don’t help people. The greatest, most fulfilling joy in life is something that is non-material and can be found in the simple act of helping someone else in need.”Lemon Juice is available for purchase on Lulu and Amazon.To receive a JNF Tree Certificate, purchasers of Lemon Juice must send a copy of their receipt with contact details to: email@example.com.