The Jewish Association on Aging will make some changes to the new kosher dining policy it unveiled in August, according to Board Chair Lou Plung and President and CEO Mary Anne Foley.
Since announcing that the organization would offer non-kosher food at Weinberg Terrace and AHAVA Memory Care — with kosher food available upon request — the JAA has met with residents and their families, listening to their concerns.
The plan presented in August was that the kitchen in Weinberg Terrace, a senior living facility on Bartlett Street, would not be kosher. Kosher food would be prepared at the JAA’s main campus — about 2.5 miles from Weinberg Terrace — double-wrapped with a seal by the VAAD Harabonim of Pittsburgh and delivered to residents who requested it. The plan was developed to address financial concerns, JAA officials said.
Scores of Jewish community members responded to the news with at least one community meeting, organizing, writing letters to the Chronicle, circulating a petition and voicing concern about the policy to the organization.
Recognizing the anxiety in the community over the change, the JAA has worked with the VAAD to find a solution.
“I would say no one, including the JAA, was happy having to go to a non-kosher option and have a fully non-kosher facility,” Plung said, “but we also had fiscal realities.”
Plung said that Foley and her staff spent “hundreds of hours” in meetings with the VAAD working to address the community’s concerns.
The organization has already begun converting part of the large kosher kitchen at the JAA’s main campus into a smaller kosher area, gated off and sealed from the rest of the facility, meeting the standards of the VAAD.
Food will be prepared, cooked, wrapped and labeled under the watch of a VAAD mashgiach, or inspector, Foley said.
The JAA, she said, heard the community’s concerns about the desire for fresh food as opposed to pre-packaged and sealed kosher meals, which many were comparing to “airplane food.”
“We’ve worked with the VAAD on a process that food will be able to be plated and served on real plates and use real silverware instead of plasticware or containers,” Foley said, “because we will have volunteer mashgiach coverage at Weinberg Terrace during serving meals to our residents.”
Plung is clear: The experience offered to the JAA’s residents who choose kosher food at Weinberg Terrace will be the same as that of every other resident.
“A server will come to them and say, ‘These are the kosher options for dinner tonight.’ They will take the order. The residents will eat off plates and have regular silverware,” he said.
Both the kosher plates — which will have a different pattern than the non-kosher plates — and silverware will go back to the main campus, under the watch of a mashgiach, where it will be cleaned.
Fresh fruit and vegetables will also be available for residents. Following the recommendation of the VAAD, those items will come from an outside vendor, prepackaged and fresh.
Kosher residents will still have the option to sit in the main dining area, or they may choose to eat in a new, kosher-only section.
“This whole issue has been about choice for our residents, not separation,” Plung said, explaining that the organization understood most residents would prefer to sit together. The VAAD, he said, suggested a separate area for those who might want to eat kosher food apart from non-kosher residents.
“It is totally at the diner’s discretion,” Plung said.
Some residents, he said, choose to eat in their rooms. That option will still be available.
The only option not available is for non-kosher residents to eat in the kosher area.
In a survey conducted in May by the organization, approximately 13% of residents said they wanted kosher food.
Foley and Plung wrote in an Aug. 30 Jewish Chronicle guest column that “the current cost of keeping a fully kosher program is more than $400,000 a year.”
With the new policy, set to take effect on Oct. 10, Plung said, the agency will save somewhere between $350,000 to $375,000 annually. That money will go back into the operating budget, meaning the JAA will have to pull less from its reserves and endowment.
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, a VAAD member, said that he was pained that the JAA no longer will be exclusively kosher but appreciated the dedication and commitment by JAA leadership to maintain a “mentchlech kosher option.”
“The leadership has dedicated many hours in meeting with the VAAD to make this happen,” he said. “I appreciate that time and sensitivity and thank them for the hard work they do for our community. Of course, we pray for the day when they can return to being exclusively kosher once again.”
Plung, too, said he was pleased with the JAA’s collaboration with the VAAD, pointing out that relationships between various Jewish organizations and traditions are part of what makes the Pittsburgh Jewish community so special.
“It’s the spirit of Jewish Pittsburgh, and it is unique,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in New York, or Boston or Philly or on the West Coast. People stay in their corners and don’t work together. This collaborative effort really emphasizes how special Jewish Pittsburgh is.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.