On a Friday in January 1973, Jesse Perlstein retired from his job as a district manager for the Robert Hall men’s clothing chain.
The following Monday morning he walked to the Samuel Field Y, a few minutes from his home in Little Neck, Queens, and signed up as a volunteer.
The next morning he walked to the Marathon Jewish Community Center, his synagogue a few minutes away, again to volunteer.
Thirty years later, Perlstein is still donating his time.
At 100 — “100 years and five months,” he says — Perlstein was the oldest of some 50 volunteers cited at a recent recognition event sponsored by UJA-Federation in advance of the annual Volunteer Week, a national event that this year is April 17-24.
At 100, Perlstein is one of the oldest, but not the oldest, volunteer in the UJA-Federation network of agencies.
Perlstein maintains a pace that people half his age admire. With an inconspicuous hearing aid, his hearing is fine. His eyesight is failing, but “I still read a little bit,” he says.
Despite heart bypass surgery in 1998, he has enviable blood pressure and cholesterol figures. He’s a competitive bocce player and a Mets fan. He walks a mile and a half each day, “regardless of the weather.”
And Perlstein still comes to the Y and the Marathon JCC several times a week to volunteer. He still walks.
“It’s my mission,” he says. “My mother used to say, ‘help people when you can.’ I want to do something.”
At the Y, where he formerly supervised the kitchen, Perlstein organizes senior excursions and helps out with office work. “Wherever they need me,” he says.
During the Y’s recent bake sale, he sold hamantaschen and helped coordinate the holiday activities.
“He was great during Purim,” says Steven Goodman, the Y’s executive vice president.
Goodman, who started at the Y as a counselor, has known Perlstein for four decades.
“He didn’t come here to take. He came here to give,” Goodman says.Goodman calls Perlstein “a presence” at the Y, and says he typifies the spirit of volunteerism that was honored during Volunteer Week.
The Y, a UJA-Federation beneficiary whose social service programs serve 25,000 clients, has 250 volunteers, and Perlstein is the oldest.
“It’s meaningful work that the community needs,” Goodman says of the volunteers’ activities in the Y’s programs, many of them geared to the aged.
Though Perlstein avails himself of some of the Y’s services — he accepts rides to the grocery for shopping on Fridays, since his Buick broke down eight years ago — the Y staff and clients know him as a volunteer.
Most people call him Jesse, though “many people call him ‘Uncle Jesse,’ ” Goodman says. “He’s a pleasure to be around. He’s very comfortable talking about his age.
“He’s become the symbol of what it means to be part of a community,” he says. “He’s very profoundly oriented to Jewish values.”
Susan Kohn, executive director of UJA-Federation’s Volunteer and Leadership Development Division, says “Jesse perfectly embodies ‘reciprocal giving,’ where an individual and the community simultaneously support and care for each other.
“Whether helping those less fortunate or working together with one’s friends and neighbors, volunteerism provides opportunities for individuals to act within a framework of collective, communal responsibility, actualizing the core value of Jewish citizenship and tikkun olam.”
Perlstein, a widower for 28 years, cleaned his apartment — by himself — for Passover last week. He walks to shul every Shabbat.
The Lower East Side native, who grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, shmoozes with the Y clients, sometimes throwing in a few words of Yiddish.
“I spoke a better Jewish then” — as a child in an immigrant neighborhood — “than I do now,” Perlstein laments.
“There’s a little bit of George Burns in him,” Goodman says. “There’s a tremendous soul in that man.”
Perlstein, who was too young to join the service during World War I and worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in World War II, says he has never met a day he didn’t like.
“I have no stress,” he says.
Karen Schwab, project director of older adult services at the Y, says: “When I get old, he’s my role model.”
Upon retiring Perlstein, who also worked as a waiter at banquets, says he never considered staying home, as many retirees do.
“The trouble with a lot of men when they retire is that they don’t do anything,” he says.He also never considered moving to Florida, where his son lives.
“I have to be active,” Perlstein says. “In Florida I’m not active.” In other words, there’s no Samuel Field Y there.
Perlstein says he goes to Florida every year for a few weeks “to satisfy my son.”
At the Marathon JCC, he often fills in for the secretary. Perlstein says he’s available “if anybody asks me to do something and I can get there.”
Besides the plaque he received at the recent UJA-Federation event, Perlstein has received a few other honors for his volunteer work. The Y held a 95th birthday celebration for him, and his synagogue has thrown a kiddush for him every year since he turned 90.
So does Perlstein ever plan to stop his volunteer work?
He doesn’t hesitate in answering.“Never,” he says. “I have a lot of friends at the Y. The Y gives me love.”
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- George Burns
- Jesse Perlstein
- Susan Kohn
- Steven Goodman
- Karen Schwab
- Samuel Field
- heart bypass surgery