Merle Hartstein

Lisa Mandel
Unsung Hero Merle Hartstein in her U. City home. Photo: Lisa Mandel

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special to the Jewish Light

“There are two ways of helping,“ says Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad Hoeir. “There is helping because you have to and then there is helping because you want to. That’s Merle. She is an extremely selfless person who does a lot of good work from the bottom of her heart.”

Zuravin speaks of Merle Hartstein, the same Merle Hartstein who wasn’t at all sure she wanted to be honored as an Unsung Hero. “She shies away from honor,” says Zuravin, who has worked with Hartstein since 2006. “That says a lot about her.”

Hartstein is the coordinator for two programs at the Vaad Hoeir: The Rabbi Sholom Rivkin Maos Chitim/Tzedakah Fund, which provides kosher food and items for Passover to those in need, and the Barbara Mendelson Tomchei Shabbos Fund, which assists those in need for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

“Under Jewish law, we are supposed to be charitable, find ways to do chesed, but when you just give money, you don’t always feel it,” says Hartstein. “Working with these two programs – this is actual doing. It’s a double whammy, and that’s a plus. You feel good and you are making a difference in a person’s life.”

Maos Chitim, one of the Vaad’s programs since the 1920s,  takes place at Passover. Last month, with the help of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service and local rabbis, Hartstein identified almost 200 families in need of financial assistance for Passover.

“I send gift certificates so people can get what they want,” says Hartstein, who has worked with the program for 20 years. “Half of the families we serve are not in the Jewish community as we know it. They are not part of a synagogue or a temple, but I read recently that 75 percent of Jews celebrate Passover with a seder.”

Hartstein pauses to reflect on that. “That means that no matter how far people have  drifted from an organized Jewish community, this Jewish ritual, this tradition, is still with them. That is a beautiful thing, and I am grateful that I can be instrumental in helping.” Maos Chitim also helps support seders at Covenant House, Crown Center, Chabad at Washington University and for some prison inmates.

Three years ago, Hartstein started the Tomchei Shabbos program to provide basic kosher foods necessary to prepare Shabbat meals for those do not have the means to buy food. Hartstein works with a team of volunteers.

Shabbos is a beautiful, glorious elegant gathering when the whole week stops, you sit at the table with family and you enjoy thanking God that you have this day,” says Hartstein. “Tomchei Shabbos enables those who need assistance to enjoy Shabbos at their tables.”

The program at the Vaad serves 25 families on a regular basis and others as needed. Hartstein and the volunteers stock a special pantry located in a private home and make appointments for individuals to shop at designated times. “This ensures the privacy of the recipients,” says Hartstein. “That’s important.”

Born in Philadelphia, Hartstein grew up in Baltimore. She has lived in St. Louis for almost 52 years. After a career as a special education teacher, Hartstein stayed home to raise her children. Once the children were grown, her husband overheard Hartstein say to a friend that she would really like to have a bookshop.

“Everybody thinks that’s romantic and intellectual,” says Hartstein, laughing. “Because my husband is the nicest person in the world, he said let’s do it, and we did. I lived six houses from the store, and walked to work.” When her grown children moved to Israel, Hartstein closed the book store so she would be free to travel.

“Today, I don’t work like people who go to an office,” says Hartstein. “Each year  Maos Chitim starts up about three months before Passover, and it’s very intense for about two and a half weeks, right up to Passover. With Tomchei, I work one day a week, but there is always something to think about with it.”

Hartstein speaks highly of her co-workers. Then she adds, “I would like to compliment Rabbi Zuravin. He is so efficient — and so compassionate. His work  makes whatever I do seem easy.”

Merle Hartstein

AGE:  75

FAMILY:  Married to Jack Hartstein, a doctor; three children, seven grandchildren

HOME: University City

OCCUPATION: Owned the Green Trails Book Shop in Chesterfield for 20 years

FAVORITE PASTIME: Traveling to Israel to see her children, reading, attending classes in Jewish studies