A childhood home reimagined: The Branch opens new culturally Jewish living community
HomecomingFalk House named for community stalwarts

A childhood home reimagined: The Branch opens new culturally Jewish living community

Josh Falk's journey comes full circle

David Falk and Josh Falk (Photo by Abigail Hakas)
David Falk and Josh Falk (Photo by Abigail Hakas)

It was something of a homecoming for brothers Josh and David Falk when they celebrated the grand opening of the Elliott and Esther Falk House, a community living arrangement, more commonly known as a group home, for those with intellectual disabilities.

Josh Falk, who has an intellectual disability, was living in the home for a few weeks by the time friends, family and community members filled the house on June 27 to tour it.

But the brothers were already intimately familiar with the landscape of the Squirrel Hill ranch house. They grew up there.

Their parents, Esther and Elliott Falk, moved to Pittsburgh in 1968 when David and Josh were 4 and 7, respectively. Elliot Falk was vital to the expansion of Robert Morris University as its vice president of financial affairs. Esther Falk, a Holocaust survivor, was a teacher.

The two were active members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Elliott Falk, who often went by the nickname “Buddy,” served for terms as president of Poale Zedeck Congregation and Hillel Academy.
It was important to the Falks, that their son Josh be connected to the Jewish community.

Even as Josh Falk spent the week and weeknights at Clelian Heights — a Roman Catholic school for those with developmental disabilities that he attended from age 7 to 18 — Esther Falk brought him home every weekend for Shabbat.

When he left Clelian Heights, Josh Falk spent years in various community living arrangements, but his mother was always bothered by the fact that he was living in homes that weren’t culturally Jewish.

Alison Karabin, director of community and partnerships at The Branch, formerly Jewish Residential Services, met Esther Falk around nine years ago. Esther Falk’s health began to decline around 2016, eight years after her husband’s death, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Karabin facilitated meetings with Verland, a nonprofit that creates community living arrangements.

The Branch has worked with Verland to set up two other culturally Jewish community living arrangements in Pittsburgh: the Solomon and Sarah Goldberg House and the Solomon Family House. Verland staffs each home with a 24/7 crew that helps with cooking, cleaning and transportation, among other things.

When Esther Falk’s health declined, David Falk had the epiphany that his childhood home would make an ideal group home for Josh Falk, who at the time was living in a group residence that was not culturally Jewish. David Falk invited a crew from The Branch to look at the one-story house. It was desirable as a group home for Josh Falk, he said, for its accessibility and a host of other reasons, including that “it was back in the Jewish community, that they intended to make sure that the home was kosher, which was a big deal to my mother and me and that, you know, he would be in the midst of celebrating Jewish holidays in some fashion. They’re taking him to synagogue every Saturday; I mean, it’s just a whole new world.”

During a speech at the grand opening of the house, David Falk said that his brother shows “a yearning for Judaism.”

“He loves Hebrew music, saying Kiddush on Shabbos, celebrating Jewish holidays and attending shul,” David Falk said. “Both our parents are certainly smiling down today now that Josh has an opportunity to live in a kosher group home among the wonderful Pittsburgh Jewish community.”

David Falk said he appreciates that Josh Falk is living in a home run by a Jewish organization like The Branch.

“Maybe I should have expected it, but they turned over the house for Passover, which I was blown away by,” he told the Chronicle. “They started taking him to synagogue before I even discussed it with them.”

David Falk, Josh’s legal guardian, sold the house in 2019 and donated a portion of the proceeds back to The Branch to help pay for the renovations with the understanding that Josh Falk would move in and that the house would be named after their parents.

Aside from staff, Josh Falk lives with another housemate, David Goodman, who uses a wheelchair. To make the house compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, hallways were widened and a ramp was installed.

While the house was redesigned to be ADA-compliant and refurnished, some parts of the house were purposefully kept the same.

The basement has jigsaw puzzles completed by David Falk that hang on the wall as well as a chalkboard. Esther Falk’s and Josh Falk’s handwriting remains on the board from a time when she gave him lessons.

Josh Falk has an affinity for Native American history and objects, as well as automobiles, so his room has no shortage of either. Model cars, a dreamcatcher and a map of Native American tribes, to name just a few, decorate the shelves and purple walls of the room. Karabin asked for Josh Falk’s favorite color during the renovations, and it was painted that shade for him.

“It was really neat to see them back there. I think it was bittersweet because Mrs. Falk isn’t around anymore,” Karabin said. “I really wish she had seen him move back in because that’s something she really wanted.”

Karabin says that, for the most part, it’s a house like any other. Residents of community living arrangements are often actively involved in the community, including participating in activities at the Jewish Community Center and the Friendship Circle.

David Falk said his brother’s return to the Jewish community is not just meaningful to him, but also to their late parents.

“I couldn’t be happier. I feel like I’ve accomplished what I was put here for,” David Falk said, beginning to tear up. “I don’t mean to get emotional, but I feel like I’ve fulfilled my parents’ dreams for him and just getting him back into the Jewish community.” PJC

Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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