Sylvia Chertow was an activist before her time, fighting for Nassau County’s small business owners and disadvantaged populations right up until the day she died — on Jan. 29, at age 95.
“She was a tough cookie,” said her son, Glenn, 57, a doctor in San Francisco, adding that he believed her experience growing up in the Great Depression led to her commitment to community service.
Chertow was born on Jan. 15, 1926, the eldest of Harry and Jeanne Kleinberg’s three children, who lived “an extremely modest life” in Brooklyn, according to Glenn. His mother, he said, was unable to attend college after she graduated from high school because her family couldn’t afford the bus fare or the schoolbooks, which, Glenn said, was her “starkest frustration.”
“I think it held her back from the conventional metrics of success,” he said. “I wish she had been born 30 years later, because the opportunities for women were not what they were in the 1980s or what they are now.”
Still, Sylvia managed to get a job working at a metal purchasing business, where she worked until she married Jerome “Jerry” Chertow in February 1955. The two had met at a party in Manhattan a few years earlier, Glenn said, which his mother attended with another date, before being quickly “taken by” Chertow.
The couple had two children, Robin and Glenn, whom they raised in Flatbush while looking for a house on Long Island, often dragging the kids along on weekend trips to the area. Many houses they found were “outside their means,” Glenn said, but finally, in July 1970, they moved into an affordable house in Rockville Centre.
It didn’t take long after that for Sylvia to get involved in “every community service organization” in the area, Glenn said.
“She was a passionate person about all causes,” he said, “including parenting.”
She not only supported her children’s extracurricular activities, but also got involved at the B’nai Shalom synagogue and helped found the Sandel Center for Rockville Centre seniors, even working with the village government to purchase buses for the seniors to attend various activities.
She was also involved in the community’s Hispanic Brotherhood, which served the village’s growing Hispanic population, despite her Eastern European Jewish heritage. As well, she was an active member of the National Council of Jewish Women, serving as president of the local chapter in the 1970s and taking part in the organization’s Windows on Day Care project, a nationwide report on NCJW members’ day care needs and services.
By the end of the 1970s, Glenn said, the phone would ring every 20 minutes, and it would invariably be someone looking to speak to his mother. It got to the point, he said, where he would answer the phone, “National Council of Jewish Women, Glenn speaking.”
But Sylvia was perhaps best known for her efforts to support small businesses in Nassau County. She was president of the Rockville Centre Chamber of Commerce and the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, which she helped found in 1979. She chaired every council nominating committee “to make sure this organization was held to its highest standards,” according to Julie Marchesella, who also led the group.
“She deserves praise for what she did for the businesses in the community,” said Rich Bivone, another past president of the council.
Chertow’s biggest accomplishment, Marchesella said, was securing more parking options in the county’s downtowns nearly 30 years ago. She worked with county and town officials, arguing that if there weren’t enough parking spaces, people would go to the local malls instead of patronizing small businesses. She was especially successful, Marchesella said, in the Town of Hempstead.
“Sylvia Chertow was a force to be reckoned with,” Francesca Carlow, who worked with Chertow on the NCCC board for 20 years, wrote on the council’s tribute page. “She had a well-honed skill set and never backed away from fighting to provide a united voice to help the small business community.”
She took “everything to heart,” Bivone said, never taking her authority for granted and never giving up on causes she cared about. She helped mentor many council presidents through the years, offering her opinion on every issue and making sure that every board member stuck to the council’s bylaws, which she helped create.
“Her wealth of knowledge of the business community and NCCC’s history was amazing,” Ginny McLead added on the council’s website, calling Chertow “stubborn in temperament.” “She refused to let her failing hearing, vision and age interfere with her involvement.”
Despite being in her 80s during the recession of the mid-2000s, Chertow, did everything she could to help the business community. “She was tireless,” said Jeff Greenfield, who served on the village board at the time. “That’s the best way I could describe her.”
But when Jerome died in February 2016, Glenn said, Sylvia started to have a difficult time. The two were madly in love, Glenn said, writing each other handwritten notes for anniversaries and birthdays, and without him, Sylvia began to withdraw.
Still, Marchesella said, she was lucid even in her final years. She would never forget a conversation, according to Ginny McLean, who knew Chertow from the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce.
“Getting close to her was a challenge, but if you were lucky enough to get past her steely exterior, you were golden and had a friend for life,” McLean wrote in the council’s tribute. “She cared how your family was, how your business was faring and, above all, how you were doing.”
Chertow even sent Bivone’s wife, Karen, whom she had not yet met, a condolence card when her father died. “She was an absolute sweetheart,” said Karen, who often visited Chertow in her later years with her husband. They would often find her reading, Rich said, because she found TV boring.
Whenever they went anywhere, Karen said, Chertow’s black cap had to be “just right.”
When the pandemic hit, and she was no longer able to see those she loved, Glenn said, it “contributed to her failure to thrive.” “She died from the pandemic,” he said, “not the virus.”
Chertow was buried at the Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, N.J., on Jan. 29 in a small ceremony. In addition to her son, she is survived by her daughter, Robin Charles, and her grandchildren, Caleb, Elazar and Solana Chertow and Justin Charles.