Longtime Covenant House leader to step down

Janet Weinberg

By David Baugher Special to the Jewish Light

A familiar face to hundreds of residents on the I.E. Millstone Campus will soon be leaving her position, probably by early next year.

Janet Weinberg, longtime executive director of Covenant House/CHAI Apartments, has announced her retirement as head of the three-building 418-unit complex, a job she has held for a decade and a half. No firm timeframe has been set but both Weinberg and the organization’s president Howard Loiterstein said that ideally Covenant would transition to new leadership within about two months. A committee has already been formed to begin the search.

Weinberg joked that she wanted to dispel any rumors that her departure was motivated by winning the lottery or health issues. She said she was making the move in order to take time for herself and hopes to do some traveling to see family and friends. She plans to find some type of part-time work upon her return.

“It’s been a labor of love as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “It’s going to be a big change but at a certain point you know it requires a certain pace and energy and you know it’s time. At that time, you want to hand it off to somebody.”

For Weinberg, it’s a period of mixed feelings.

“It’s a little like leaving your surrogate family because you work very closely with a very dedicated group of lay leaders, board members, volunteers, staff and of course, the seniors,” she said. “It’s a big change.”

Loiterstein said Weinberg’s shoes will be tough to fill. He credited Weinberg’s leadership of the organization with making recruiting new board members easier and even cited her presence as the reason he accepted the presidency 18 months ago.

“She built Covenant House into one of the premiere housing facilities in the St. Louis area,” he said. “We’re going to miss her a lot. She did a terrific job.”

Weinberg’s staff echoes those sentiments. Leasing director Jude Landwehr expressed sadness at her boss’s departure.

“She has done wonderful things for this building,” said Landwehr, who has been with Covenant for 23 years. “She has probably gotten services and better things for the tenants than anyone ever could have.”

Jane Thompson, a 22-year veteran of the organization as a social services provider, described her as very supportive of the staff and residents, calling her “the most company-oriented person I know.”

“She cares about the tenants, has activities for them, exercises, transportation,” she said. “I love working with her.”

Weinberg’s tenure began in the summer of 1995 when she answered an advertisement in the Jewish Light while in town for a family bat mitzvah celebration. A native St. Louisan, she had been working in New York for some time as executive director of The Caring Community, a social service agency which assisted the elderly.

Since then, the Bais Abraham congregant has said that many of her biggest accomplishments have revolved around programming, an issue she believes is vital to the elderly who often have transportation and mobility issues that make it difficult for them to attend events outside the facility. She’s proud that exercise classes are held six days a week and most days feature at least two or three activities from cooking classes to art workshops to “chair yoga” sessions.

If you can’t find something to do here, it’s because you are not looking,” she said. “That makes me feel good.”

She said that a big part of running a facility like Covenant is creating engaging and enriching experiences to fill the calendar. She said that for seniors, free time often takes on a different meaning than it has for others.

“Most working people look forward to it,” she said. “They can’t wait for the weekend. If you are retired, every day is the weekend.”

Facilities issues have also been an ever-present challenge. For much of the latter half of Weinberg’s tenure, the institution has been engaged in an extensive revamp involving everything from roofing to windows. For wisdom she draws on the Jewish saying, “Take the old and renew it. Take the new and sanctify it.”

“Just like anything else, it has to be rehabilitated, replaced and renewed,” she said. “Since 2003, the last six or seven years, that’s been the main focus.”

She said that in a time of shrinking budgets and government cutbacks, Covenant’s mission of providing housing, often for low-income elderly, becomes all the more vital. She said that in 1973 Covenant I was built for a little more than $4 million. She estimates that construction costs have quadrupled since then.

“Now the average cost of a project might be three to four million but you are only getting 40 or 50 units. That makes a huge difference,” she said. “The fact that we have so many units enables us to have economies of scale, have a certain amount of money through management fees and re-circulate it to not only rehab but also to support the services we provide.”

She said that like all non-profits in the present economic environment, Covenant faces a challenging time. Still in the midst of renovations, many projects are yet to be completed but she said money from fundraising efforts remains in reserve and she feels very confident in the board and the staff.

“The bottom line with all this is you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. All you can do is put your best foot forward,” she said. “As far as that goes, I feel that it’s in a relatively good position but it’s a work in progress. While we’ve accomplished a lot, there’s still more to go.”

Weinberg said she feels thankful to all of the other Jewish community executives and expressed gratitude to her board, staff and residents, as well as partnering organizations for their help over the years. She said she’s reminded of Covenant’s mission every time she sees a resident make a new friend in the lobby or dining area.

“They come here and they rebuild their lives,” she said. “I’ve seen that over and over. That’s the real gem of what this is all about.”