Groundbreaking milestone for Covenant/CHAI

Back in 1980, the Covenant House Tenants Council celebrated Purim with a gala party and dance. Highlighting the evening was the crowning of a Queen Esther and King Ahaseueras, Dolly and Irwin Altman. The Altmans were honored for the volunteer services they performed on behalf of their neighbors. Pictured, along with the Altmans (seated) are former Kings and Queens (from left) Leon Richman and Rose Fishbein; Ben and Leona Feldman; Rubin and Shirley Dobkin; Harry Kessler and Sophie Portnoy, and Ida Solomon. PHOTO: David M. Henschel

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Forty years ago this month, the St. Louis Jewish Light, in a Page One story announced, “Covenant House groundbreaking scheduled for March 12 at JCCA.”

For four decades, Covenant House (now Covenant/CHAI Apartments) has empowered the Jewish community of St. Louis to fulfill the mitzvah of the Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days be long upon the land which the Lord thy God has given thee.”

At its founding, Covenant House was a pioneering, breakthrough development in the long dream, fostered originally by B’nai B’rith International, to provide federally-supported affordable housing for the elderly members of the Jewish community who were capable of living in a supportive facility offering a full range of activities and amenities. The original plan for Covenant House provided for 201 low-rise apartments for older adults under the joint sponsorship of B’nai B’rith, the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Center for Aged.

Harvey Gerstein, then and now a prime mover in B’nai B’rith and the overall Jewish community, was the driving force behind the original concept, using his unique diplomatic and business skills to bring together the diverse sponsoring groups, balance their needs and provide for a state-of-the art apartment complex for the Jewish elderly. The $3.3 million project had been approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the zoning was approved by the St. Louis County Council. The project was financed by a federally guaranteed low-interest loan.

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Anat Cohen at The Sheldon

At the time, Gerstein described the location of Covenant House on the grounds of the JCC as “an ideally convenient location. It is at the center of the county’s population, and is in easy walking distance of the many cultural, educational and recreational programs of the JCC.” He added the completion of the facilities was expected by June 1973, which was accomplished. Later, in February 1978, Covenant House II Apartments were dedicated, which greatly expanded the scope of the housing and other available space of the facility, which became a model for the nation.

Covenant House, at its inception 40 years ago, was described as “a new kind of housing development for senior citizens living on a fixed income. It is not merely an apartment complex, not at all a nursing home and not quite what developers call “a retirement village. Since its opening, it has offered security, a sense of community, and above all, a place to live with dignity.”

Indeed I can speak of the many benefits of Covenant/Chai from personal experience. My late mother, Lillian DeWoskin Cohn, spent the last 18 years of her life at Covenant/CHAI, and thoroughly enjoyed the many benefits of its housing units, its array of interesting activities, including a dynamic tenants council, and warm companionship of her fellow residents. My family is very grateful for the compassionate and highly professional staff, including its former longtime director Janet Weinberg and social worker Jane Thompson. Covenant/CHAI is currently under the super professional leadership of Joan Denison. I am convinced that my mom, who passed away in 2000, had a much fuller and meaningful life in her older years as a result of living at Covenant/CHAI. I find it comforting that the current location of the St. Louis Jewish Light is within the Covenant/CHAI complex, a fact that provides a daily reminder of how blessed not only my family was, but the entire community is to have such a wonderful facility.

Through the years, the Covenant House Tenants Council has raised funds for the annual Jewish Federation Campaign, has sponsored Purim and other holiday celebrations and has given the residents of this remarkable facility an ongoing and effective voice in maintaining its four-decade tradition of assuring that the lives of our precious parents and grandparents are as fulfilling and meaningful as possible.

And so, on this, the 40th anniversary of its groundbreaking, we say “Yasher Koach and Mazel Tov” to Covenant/CHAI and may it grow from strength to strength in the years ahead.