Productive pandemic projects continue to impress

Rachel and Jay Closson’s Webster Groves home.Photos courtesy of Rachel Closson

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Besides binge-watching Netflix and baking sourdough bread, what have you been doing during the pandemic? In the six months since the St. Louis area — along with most of the country — shut down in mid-March, I’ve tried to keep you apprised of some unique projects local Jewish community members have started.

These included Schenny’s Not So Simple Syrup, the brainchild of David Schenberg, who continues to give 100% of the proceeds from sales of his sweet concoction to area food pantries. And Brett and Lila Goldstein, the father-daughter duo who posted a short, synchronized dance on social media for 110 consecutive days. Their routines were the ultimate pick-me-up. 

Today comes two more distinct undertakings and next week I’ll tell you about some more. Oh and keep in mind that I’m always on the hunt for PPP — Productive Pandemic Projects — so if you know of any, please email me at [email protected]

‘Good Bones,’ St. Louis style


Imagine you and your spouse have five kids, ranging in age from 7 to 15. All of them are at home learning remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Most of us figure five children and two parents under the same roof would wreak havoc enough, getting into each other’s business. But add to this a gut rehab of an ambling, century-old home in Webster Groves while you’re all living amid the construction, and it’s amazing these seven people are still talking to one another.

“We had decided to do this before the pandemic,” said Rachel Closson, joking that she’s not a glutton for punishment. “But the pandemic has made it so much more fun . . . not really.”

Rachel and her husband, Jay, are the kind of parents who try to make things fun for their kids, drawing them into the adventure. According to his wife, Jay, a pilot for Nestle Purina, is incredibly handy and can tackle most renovations. This family could easily have their own HGTV show, which trust me, many of us would gladly watch. Rachel is the design maven and visionary while Jay is the big picture guy, who understands blueprints and structural issues. Their five kids, says Rachel, are incredibly resilient and apparently used to their parents’ DIY shenanigans.

And while the family has been loving the rehab project, Rachel warns, “It’s not for the faint of heart. I don’t think many people could live this way, in all this chaos and construction, but I like that I can see it all happening in real time.”

Rachel, a native St. Louisan (her parents are Mark and Leslie Brownstein), explained that she and Jay have always had a soft spot for Webster Groves. Married for 17 years, they moved around a lot but bought a small home in Webster two years ago. 

“It was in gross shape, so we fixed it up and sold it in a day,” said Rachel, 40, who is the director of Lucky Lane preschool and a photographer. “We were always looking for our forever, or mostly forever home in Webster — something with a much bigger yard for the kids, a home we can stretch out in and, hopefully, have grandchildren visit.”

They found their dream home last year on Marshall Place because their realtor had a friend whose parents owned the home and were ready to sell. The Clossons, who belong to Temple Israel, made an offer before the house went on the market, buying it “as-is,” which enabled them to get it at a price they could afford.

“The people had been there 35 years and raised five kids, but I don’t know how they did it. They had just one bathroom upstairs with only a tub and an old-fashioned sink with two faucets — one for hot water, one for cold,” said Rachel. “They had one full bath near the kitchen, which had the only shower in the house. It was a wreck. All the trim and the doors throughout were scratched and weathered. The floors were nasty, but we loved the bones. It’s half an acre with a garage and a huge attic.”

Slowly, but ever so surely, the Clossons are increasing the space by nearly 1,000 square feet, adding more bedrooms and baths as well as a rec room and mud room, bumping out the kitchen and reconfiguring the existing footprint. The older kids now have their space for virtual school upstairs while the younger ones have theirs downstairs.  Working alongside their contractor, Jay has been able to devote more time to the project since only essential flying was allowed until recently.

“We are definitely staying in budget, though we ended up replacing all the windows, which was a $30,000 expense we hadn’t counted on,” said Rachel, who has been chronicling the family’s progress on Instagram at closson_house. “We’ve gone over in some places but because Jay is able to do so much of the labor, we’ve saved in other areas.”

The Clossons hope to have their home completed by Thanksgiving. “At least more or less,” added Rachel, laughing.

Sisters united

Some of you may be familiar with David and Jeff Lazaroff, accomplished local musicians better known as the Brothers Lazaroff. Now meet the Sisters Lazaroff – Ella, 14, and Daisy, 11, who are Jeff and his wife, Julie’s, daughters.

Last month, the sisters, having had their fill of summer swimming and chilling, learned that the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry was in need of help. So the girls, whose family attends Central Reform Congregation, decided to do something about it.

“With the coronavirus pandemic, there has been something like a 500% increase in the need for food because of unemployment and so many people losing their jobs,” said Ella, who is an eighth grader at John Burroughs School.

“My mom said people on unemployment who were getting extra money ($600 a week) — it ran out,” added Daisy, who is a sixth grader at New City School. “We really wanted to help.”

Going door-to-door, the two distributed more than 300 flyers to residents in their University Heights neighborhood telling of the food drive for the pantry. The flyer clearly spelled out what items were needed — canned goods, pasta, boxed meals, peanut butter — and which ones to avoid: fresh fruit because it is perishable and junk food.

“We wanted stuff that would sustain you and not make you want to eat more, like candy and chips,” said Ella.

From Aug. 8 to 15, the sisters collected pantry items from their neighbors — enough to fill six grocery carts — “and I mean six very full grocery carts,” said Daisy, emphatically. In addition, they received more than $2,000 in monetary donations.

“It made us feel very good to know we were helping others in a little way,” said Ella, adding that the food pantry was thrilled to receive what the sisters had collected.

Like the Brothers Lazaroff, Ella and Daisy seem to have a close relationship, though each assured me things between them aren’t always simpatico.

“We can work together when we want to work together,” said Ella, in true older sister fashion.