Zelda Gersten combined the style of Auntie Mame with a devotion to community service, and she spent years raising money and helping other people.
She was always ready for fun, hated cooking and loved parties and shopping. She also was a pillar of the Hartford Jewish Federation and many of its affiliate organizations.
Gersten died on Sept. 5 in West Hartford, where she had lived for many years. She was 86.
She was born July 18, 1926, the daughter of Charles and Sadie Sheketoff. She grew up on Canterbury Street in the North End of Hartford, along with two brothers and one sister. Her father owned the American Coal Co.
Gersten attended Weaver High School and graduated from the Knox School, a girls boarding school in St. James, N.Y. At Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., she majored in English and acted in several plays.
After graduation, she returned to Hartford, where she got a job from the storied Beatrice Fox Auerbach, owner of the G. Fox department store, as an advertising copywriter. She then switched to a similar job at the Sage-Allen department store.
She met Charles D. Gersten, an up-and-coming young Hartford lawyer, and they married in February 1951 at the Tumblebrook Country Club in Bloomfield.
After their four children were in school, Zelda Gersten became deeply involved with her community.
She delivered Meals on Wheels for many years and became the president of the Hartford Jewish Federation's Conference of Jewish Women, served on the board of Catholic Charities and was president of the Women's Auxiliary of the Hebrew Home and Hospital.
Along with several other women, she researched the relatively new concept of day care in the 1970s, estimating the need and detailing the availability of services. She evaluated the problems caused by the lack of day care facilities, and canvassed large corporations to try to persuade them to offer on-site day care. The work became part of a national survey presented by the National Council of Jewish Women called "Windows on Day Care."
Gersten also served as leader of a conference called the Governor's Volunteer Action Committee, set up by Gov. Ella Grasso.
"She was truly motivated to help those less fortunate," said Sue Ziellenbach, who added that Gersten had been a mentor to her when she first became involved in community service.
The conference brought people in the volunteer sector together and offered help with fundraising, Robert's Rules of Order, running board meetings and learning to do publicity.
"All the nuts and bolts of non-profits," Ziellenbach said. "It went on for several years with Zelda either as chair or very active. It enriched an awful lot of people. ... She knew Hartford inside and out and how to get things done."
Gersten encouraged Gov. William A. O'Neill to hold a tea in the governor's mansion to honor volunteers.
"It was a way of recognizing volunteers who for many, many years hadn't been recognized," Ziellenbach said.
Gersten also worked with Children in Placement, an organization started to help children who were involved with Juvenile Court or the Department of Children and Families. At the time, the organization was new, and there were few advocates for children involved with the legal system.
She wasn't a lawyer, but Gersten was involved frequently as a guardian ad litem, representing children's interests in court.
"She was well grounded. She knew her stuff," said Ziellenbach, a former president of the Junior League.
Gersten received Hannah B. Sullivan Woman of the Year award from the local Council of Jewish Women in 1976 and the Rollins College Service to Humanity Award in 1999.
"She was a take-charge type of person," said her daughter, Liz Osta. "If she had a project, it was going to get done. ... She was a fighter."
Gersten loved entertaining, and talked to anyone and everyone. She always looked well turned out and she had a flamboyant personality, said her son, Eliot. She could hardly wait until her six granddaughters got old enough for epic shopping sprees, and her closets — and theirs — were always well stocked. She played tennis and golf avidly, and was a good bridge player.
Perhaps because when she was young her own family had not been close, she went to extra efforts to keep her own large family bonded. She hosted yearly holiday trips to the Caribbean for a group that now numbers more than 20. Her birthday was an occasion for a major family gathering around her pool that became known as "Zeldapalooza."
She spent much of the summer at the beach, but thought sunscreen was for others, and never outgrew a passion for peppermint stick ice cream smothered in hot fudge sauce, which she devoured in quantity.
When her children were little and take-out was not a major source of the evening meal, she used to boil canned asparagus to death and cook the taste out of fish — her cooking was the target of many family jokes. She bought food in bulk "long before it was fashionable," said Eliot Gersten said, and there are still some cases of tuna fish and hundreds of tchotchkes at large in her house.
Gersten, who died of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is survived by three children: Eliot Gersten, Liz Osta and Richard Gersten, as well as 13 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a sister, Gilda Brock. A daughter, Sandra, and her husband Charles died earlier.
"She didn't live a fancy life," Eliot Gersten said, "not showy or ostentatious. She took care of other people. The community was her family."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at