Community members voice concern over JAA’s new non-kosher food option
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Community members voice concern over JAA’s new non-kosher food option

“We’ve been working with them... to do the best we can to maintain whatever we possibly can that they will agree upon." — Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld

During a recent meeting, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld articulates the Vaad’s position concerning a decision by the JAA to offer non-kosher meals at Weinberg Terrace. Photo by David Rullo
During a recent meeting, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld articulates the Vaad’s position concerning a decision by the JAA to offer non-kosher meals at Weinberg Terrace. Photo by David Rullo

For more than two weeks, members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community have taken to social media to share their concerns about the Jewish Association on Aging’s plan to offer non-kosher dietary options at Weinberg Terrace and AHAVA Memory Care.

On Aug. 23, those community members met in person to discuss the changes outlined in a letter from JAA’s President and CEO Mary Anne Foley and board Chair Lou Plung sent to residents and family members on Aug. 7.

While kosher meals will still be available at Weinberg Terrace, they will be prepared at the JAA’s main campus on JHF Drive, double-wrapped and then delivered to the personal care community on Bartlett Street. Residents who keep kosher will have the option to sit in areas separate from where non-kosher food is being served.

More than three dozen people — including friends and relatives of JAA residents, former JAA employees and representatives of the Vaad Harabonim of Pittsburgh — met at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill branch to share their frustration and offer ideas to slow or stop the new policy, which the JAA has said won’t be implemented before Sept. 7.

After introductory remarks by organizers Karen Gusky and Julie Lidji, Vaad member Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld addressed those in attendance.

The rabbi spoke about how important it was for the community to come together. While acknowledging JAA’s new plan, he said that many people around the country find it remarkable that Pittsburgh has a senior residence facility where kosher food is available, and that the community might capitalize on that reputation.

Rosenfeld suggested that the possibility of growing the community by luring Jews from across the country to Pittsburgh, as well as providing better education about the importance of kashrut, could help eliminate issues of cost that have contributed to the JAA’s decision.

“Maybe if we can make it better and better, that’s the answer to making it affordable,” he said.

Vaad rabbis, Rosenfeld explained, were not aware of the JAA’s new food policy until after the decision was made to offer non-kosher meals.

“We’ve been working with them — after they told us what they were about to do — to do the best we can to maintain whatever we possibly can that they will agree upon,” he said. “There’s no question from our perspective that it needs to be kosher, it needs to be acceptable.”

Rosenfeld urged those at the meeting to contact the JAA to express their displeasure with the policy.

Rabbi Eli Seidman, the JAA’s former director of pastoral care, said by the time the JAA spoke to the Vaad, the decision was a “fait accompli.”

“I don’t know what we can do to change their minds,” he said.

Seidman said it might be worthwhile to add members to boards of the JAA and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh whose opinions reflect those present at the meeting.

Offering a refrain heard throughout the night, one attendee asked if the Federation participated in the JAA’s discussions and what the greater impact would be for the community.

Others remarked on the JAA’s perceived lack of transparency.

Gusky said she reached out to the organization, but that it provided no information before the meeting.

Vaad member Rabbi Shimon Silver said that meals will be packaged and sealed with certification by the Vaad, rather than served fresh, because the JAA did not want to pay for two mashgiachs (inspectors) — one working where the food is cooked and another where it is plated and served.

He suggested that may be a place to find compromise.

“If we could come up with some way of convincing them to have a second mashgiach at each dining area, at each mealtime, three times a day supervising the serving of kosher food, then that would solve that problem,” he said.

Some tension occurred when Ellen Roteman said that the JAA had already made its decision and that it wouldn’t change before being implemented. She said she believes the decision was based on the JAA’s financial status.

“From my work at Federation — and I have been retired for about nine years — this has been a part of the discussion at JAA since I worked there and long before that because health care costs are skyrocketing, and the main concern is to provide health care,” she said.

The focus, Roteman said, should be on deciding what to do next.

“I think they’re willing to listen to some ideas that we might have to make this more palatable to preserve the dignity as much as we can — but this is going to happen,” Roteman said.

Many disagreed with Roteman. In fact, one attendee suggested hiring lawyers to see if there were legal options that could force the JAA to slow and, ultimately, reverse its decision.

Former Weinberg Terrace Executive Director Rena Becker said that the JAA is sensitive to criticism and that the organization’s leaders are aware of the discussions taking place in the community.

“This is not really a done deal,” she said. “If we raise our voices, if we tell them what we really want and need, and that the Orthodox community is growing, there’s a lot of teeth to that.”

No representatives of the JAA or the Federation attended the meeting.

Following the meeting, Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing, told the Chronicle that Federation’s community campaign contributions don’t constitute a large part of the JAA’s budget, but that the organization’s unrestricted funding enables the JAA to have the flexibility to meet immediate needs.

“Jewish Federation’s relationship with JAA also vastly multiplies the impact of donor dollars, such as the $17 million in HUD financing that the Federation helped to secure to renovate The New Riverview,” he said.

Federation President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein said that the organization will continue to keep its public events kosher and Vaad-supervised, but he recognized the importance of each Jewish agency and congregation making its own decisions for the people it serves.

“As Judaism believes in honoring our mothers and fathers, we believe that caring for older adults in our community is critically important,” he said. “Consequently, Jewish Federation continues to support JAA as one of our core partner agencies.”

In a prepared statement released after the meeting, the Vaad said it was saddened by the decision of the JAA to “reverse a historic commitment to upholding kashrut in its facilities,” and that it will continue its pledge to ensure fresh kosher food is available to all who desire it.

“The choice to offer non-kosher for budgetary concerns is not one we are at peace with nor one in which we were consulted,” the statement reads. “We expect and hope that the other agencies of the Jewish community will continue to uphold our long-standing communal commitment to kashrut, both as a statement of inclusivity to all members of the Jewish community, but more importantly as a principled affirmation of the responsibility of an agency representing the Jewish community to uphold standards of Jewish law and tradition.”

The Vaad said it would be penning a letter to the JAA asking that the implementation of its new food policy be delayed until it meets with community members to address their concerns. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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