and old woman sits smiling on a park bench with a small black and white dog on her lap
Evelyn Gurevitch with her dog, Tipper (Photo/Shoshana Hebshi)

Meet this 90-something social butterfly and former chicken farmer

If there’s a secret to health and longevity, Evelyn Gurevitch, 95, attests to staying active and social every day.

That she keeps busy is an understatement. The Santa Rosa resident, who helped found Congregation Beth Ami there in 1943, has been engaged with people and her community her entire life, and still has at least one activity on her calendar every day.

The social butterfly and beloved member of the Sonoma County Jewish community will be honored with an ice cream social birthday party on Saturday, June 17 at Beth Ami.

“I love ice cream,” said Gurevitch, whose birthday is May 15. “Every year we have an ice cream party.”

The whole family will come to town to join the festivities, including Gurevitch’s younger sister, 90, who lives in Los Angeles.

There’s nothing Gurevitch loves more than spending time with family and friends. “We celebrate a lot,” she said.

Sitting in the dining room of the house she and her late husband, Leo, built in 1971 on the property they bought in 1944, Gurevitch is sharp and gracious, though she was out until midnight for a Sukkot party the night before. Her small dog, Tipper, keeps close watch over her every move.

Gurevitch lives on a three-acre spread on the southern end of Santa Rosa. The land is flat and fertile, with a history of agriculture and homesteading.

When she and Leo moved north from Berkeley, they lived for three months in Penngrove before his parents scouted this spot. They moved into the existing two-bedroom house on the property, and, like some other Sonoma County Jews, started a chicken ranch.

At the height of their chicken-ranching operations, they had 10,000 birds. The two Gurevitch children, Eleanor and Ross, helped on the farm and joined 4H in school. The lifestyle was a far cry from the city upbringing Gurevitch had in metropolitan Los Angeles. But she learned the tricks of the trade from the Petaluma chicken farmers she befriended.

“It was a way of life,” she said. “Petaluma was all chicken ranchers, and we’d meet. We’d make it social.”

The social aspect of her activities has kept Gurevitch active and connected with community all these years. “I’m busy all the time; I have something going every day,” she said.

Her calendar includes regular visits with friends from her time working for the city schools, with fellow members of the Sonoma County JCC’s Friendship Circle and with “old-timers” in Petaluma.

Beth Ami has remained a constant source of connection. In the early 1940s, the Santa Rosa Jewish community was not large, but it was dedicated. One Orthodox congregation held services in a room inside an old shoe factory. Gurevitch remembers working with about 40 other Jewish families to found the local JCC, which later became Congregation Beth Ami.

They found a little church near downtown and a part-time rabbi, and operated their congregation and social activities from there until they built Beth Ami in Bennett Valley in 1964. “It was like a family at that time,” Gurevitch said.

Unlike the Jewish community in Petaluma less than 20 miles to the south, Santa Rosa Jews were mostly business owners and tended to be more conservative. The Gurevitch family was the only Jewish family that raised chickens in Santa Rosa, and the family attended Petaluma’s B’nai Israel congregation for many years. That changed when the children got older and Evelyn and Leo decided to commit solely to Beth Ami, where Evelyn volunteered for everything she could and Leo served three terms as congregation president.

Though the Jewish population in Santa Rosa was small, everyone worked hard to stick together by organizing many activities and celebrations. Gurevitch remembers only 10 Jewish teenagers when Eleanor was in school. There was anti-Semitism, she said, and “the children felt it.”

Today, she noted, things are better for Jews in Santa Rosa. Shomrei Torah, the Reform congregation founded in 1974, has a large membership, and the Conservative Beth Ami, though smaller in size, is still going strong. “People are beginning to know we’re here,” Gurevirch said, laughing.

She also observed another thing that has certainly changed over the years: the amount of traffic on her street, which confirms the rapid population growth in the area.

Despite the traffic, Gurevitch still drives herself to Saturday morning services every week, where she has her “regular seat.” If she doesn’t show up for services, daughter Eleanor says she receives calls from friends asking if her mother is OK.

Eleanor, who moved with her husband, Len Cohen, back onto the ranch in 2005, said she is lucky to have her mom’s “vital and loving presence” in her life. She and Len live just a stone’s throw from her mother, and they eat dinner together almost every night.

“I still have a hard time keeping up with her and living up to her as she is still such a dynamo,” Eleanor said.

Gurevitch insists her longevity comes from her refusal to be idle. In her “spare” time, she creates beautiful quilts, cooks (Passover dinner included), works in the yard and shops. She holds a standing Thursday date to dine on In-N-Out Burger with her neighbor.

“Otherwise you stagnate,” she said, offering up this wisdom: “Be aware of what’s going on around you, be active and enjoy life.”

Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.