When it comes to helping older adults, this Jewish communal leader has seniority

Harvey Gerstein speaks in September 2019 at the Mirowitz Center during a kickoff event for Friends Enjoying Life, a group Gerstein formed to provide social opportunities for active senior men.

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Rachael Pevnick had just become used to the benefits of her new home at Covenant Place when the pandemic hit.

Pevnick, 87 and a widow, had decided years earlier that she no longer wanted to live alone, but she had to wait for a spot to open in the Jewish senior residence. She was finally able to move in January. By March, she was a regular at events.

On Thursday movie nights, Pevnick, a longtime administrator at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, would offer popcorn and sell candy to make watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Downton Abbey” feel more like a trip to the theater. 

She attended a challah baking class and Friday night Shabbat services. 

In short, Pevnick said, she attended “everything they had.”

Since March 2020, when social distancing measures were implemented to limit the spread of COVID-19, Pevnick has continued to attend virtual classes and gatherings with the use of her iPad and, for one activity, the old-fashioned way: a telephone. 

She is the sort of person Harvey Gerstein had in mind in 2019 when he donated $200,000 to the nonprofit Covenant Place to provide programming for active seniors. 

At age 85, Gerstein said, “You still want to be active, you still want to be involved, and I don’t regard myself as a senior. I regard myself as an active adult because I do a lot of things, and so I want to make all those things available to people whether they can afford it or not.”

Covenant Place has continued to try to fulfill Gerstein’s vision, in spite of the constraints of the pandemic, with daily programming ranging from a class on the state of women’s sports coverage to a virtual tour of the St. Louis Art Museum.

Experts say that sort of initiative is crucial because the population of the United States continues to age – the U.S. Census Bureau projects that older adults will outnumber children by 2035 – and studies have shown that social interaction contributes to overall health. 

During the planning phase for the Mirowitz Center, Covenant Place’s restaurant and activity space that opened in 2019, Gerstein “spoke passionately about the need to have programming for vibrant older adults,” said Joan Denison, Covenant Place president and CEO. “He said there is a long period in time now from when we become seniors to when we become those frailer older adults who are less capable, and that can be a really exciting chapter for people, but we need to provide those programmatic opportunities.”

This was not Gerstein’s first foray into helping seniors. Fifty years ago, he was president of the St. Louis chapter of B’nai Brith when the national Jewish service organization started a program to build Jewish senior housing around the country. Gerstein and his wife toured senior centers in other cities and determined that the “elderly don’t want to see the next stage of the elderly; they want to see young people,” said Gerstein, who was also involved with the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

He proposed a coalition among B’nai B’rith, the J, Federation, and the Jewish Center for the Aged to build a senior residence, Covenant Place, on the J’s campus near Creve Coeur. 

Gerstein became president of the new organization and oversaw the construction of its first two residences. He continued in leadership roles at local Jewish organizations throughout his career as vice president of Miss Elaine, a women’s sleepwear company. 

“Between Federation, the J and Covenant, though I started off as a young man, now I’m a senior citizen,” Gerstein said, even though he objects to that term.

Because of Gerstein’s central role in building the residences, when Covenant Place leaders decided that the organization needed to replace its aging buildings, Denison thought that he might object, she said.

“It was the opposite,” she said. “He is always forward thinking, and he really embraced the need and the vision for renewing what he had started.” 

In addition to donating the money for the Harvey & Wilma Gerstein Program Fund, Gerstein last year also started Friends Enjoying Life (FEL) for active senior men modeled after a program he participated in during a winter stay in Arizona. He later expanded it to men and women.

Fifteen people met in June 2019 at Gerstein’s home in Chesterfield. By October, they had 120 members who paid $50 each.

FEL hosted guest speakers and held breakfast, lunch and investment meetings. When the pandemic hit, they shifted to the virtual realm. FEL and the Mirowitz Center hold at least two collaborative events each week. And the Mirowitz Center offers assistance to help people use Zoom. 

Recent speakers included St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Ben Hochman and Gene McNary, a former St. Louis County executive and former director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. 

“All I want to do is keep the group involved so as soon as [the pandemic] ends, we can get back to having meetings and getting together in person,” Gerstein said. 

Harvey Schneider, a retired lawyer and past president of Congregation Shaare Emeth, regularly attends virtual talks through the Mirowitz Center. He attended presentations on COVID-19 and forgery in the art world and heard Rabbi Mark Shook, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Temple Israel, speak about his pastoral duties with the St. Louis County Police Department.

“Many of us stay home a lot more than we did previously,” and the Mirowitz Center programming “provides an outlet for us to expand our knowledge,” said Schneider, 84, who lives in Town and Country. 

Pevnick continues to take advantage of Covenant Place’s social offerings. She attended a talk on the history of tea and learned how iced tea became a mainstay of American life.

“People think, ‘Oh, tea. Big deal.’ But it is a big deal,” Pevnick said.

She is also putting what she learned at a previous gig to good use. Pevnick used to call bingo games at Shaare Emeth. Now, every Tuesday at 1 p.m., Pevnick calls bingo using a conference line and then delivers prizes to other residents’ rooms. 

“I think they are trying their best to keep us busy,” Pevnick said.

But she looks forward to the time when she can finally take advantage of Covenant Place’s offerings for longer than a couple of months. 

“I hope for my children and my great-grandchildren that this will be a memory and not a fact,” Pevnick said in December. “And that it will go away and that we will all be safe next year and will be able to touch one another and see one another.”