Many residents of the facility formerly known as Covenant at South Hills still harbor resentment against B’nai B’rith, blaming the organization for allowing their home to fall into bankruptcy and then be purchased by a non-Jewish operator.
Nevertheless, they are generally satisfied with the new owner of the continuing care retirement community.
Residents of the newly named Concordia of the South Hills say they are pleased that the building is being refurbished with new carpeting and paint. They are encouraged about the financial security of the facility, as new residents are finally moving in. And they still enjoy Jewish programming, including regular visits from Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation, Rabbi Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel, and Batya Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills.
But, while they still look forward to their Friday night Shabbat dinners, complete with brisket and matza ball soup, the food is no longer kosher.
“Things are going very well,” said Maury Deul, president of the residents’ council. “We’ve continued with everything except kosher food service. Not enough residents required it. Only one person insists on keeping kosher, and she brings her own meat down [to the dining room].”
The B’nai B’rith-sponsored Covenant, which was plagued by financial problems since its opening in 2002, filed for bankruptcy protection last January, and the facility was sold by order of the court in September to Concordia Lutheran Ministries.
Deul said it was too expensive for Concordia to maintain a kosher kitchen, but it did agree to consistently provide meal options that contained no “forbidden foods.”
“We’re following custom, rather than halacha,” Deul said. “Look, if you want kosher and you’re Orthodox, you go to Weinberg Terrace, you don’t come here. We knew this would not be a kosher facility once the broader Jewish community wiped their hands of us.”
Deul’s reference is to the Jewish Association on Aging and United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, which assembled a committee to consider purchasing the Covenant last fall, but ultimately decided not to pursue an acquisition of the troubled facility.
“We are making due, and we are generally satisfied, “ Deul said. “We are pursuing all of the holidays. We’ll have a seder. It won’t be kosher, but we will follow the ritual.
“Concordia is very businesslike, and they’re doing a good job,” Deul added. “Generally, the mood is pretty good, considering most people here have lost a small fortune.”
Residents of the facility were required to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in entrance fee deposits when they purchased their interests in the Covenant. Ninety percent of those fees were to be refunded when residents moved from the facility, or passed away. Under the terms of Concordia’s purchase agreement, it is not required to refund the residents’ deposits, so that money is now lost.
More than 60 residents have sought redress against B’nai B’rith through the filing of two separate class action lawsuits.
“I think B’nai B’rith really should acknowledge the lousy job they did and that they just walked away from us early in the game,” Deul said.
“I have such hatred for B’nai B’rith and what they did,” said Marilyn Charap, a resident of Concordia of the South Hills, who moved into the facility in 2002. “But I shouldn’t feel rancor for these people [Concordia].”
“At the beginning, I had this deep resentment, but it was misplaced,” said Charap. “Concordia is trying to do whatever they can to make us happy.”
Deul, in fact, noted that the management of Concordia keeps its hands on the pulse of the community, something he says B’nai B’rith never did.
“The president of Concordia comes in and walks around about twice a week,” Deul said. “Other people on Concordia’s staff come here regularly, too. They talk to individual residents. B’nai B’rith never did that. They never showed any real interest. They didn’t know any of us.”
Charap noted that Concordia also has made some positive changes in staffing.
“The people they’re hiring are very nice people,” she said. “They’re here for the long term.”
Concordia, which owns six other continuing care communities, is one of the 100 largest senior care providers in the country, and in the top 2 percent of the Pennsylvania Department of Health inspection results, according to its Web site. It has been in the business of running facilities caring for the elderly since 1882.
While it dubs itself “a place where heartfelt Christian faith and a strong sense of service to others help us make a difference every day,” by all accounts, it is working hard to accommodate the needs of its Jewish residents.
Shortly after Concordia assumed ownership of the facility, top management called a meeting with Rabbis Mahler and Greenbaum, in order to see how it could fulfill the needs of the Jewish community residing there.
“We had a meeting with both rabbis,” said Keith Frndak, president and CEO of Concordia Lutheran Ministries. “I thought it was very positive. When reasonable people get together on things, things work out.”
Mahler agreed. “They have been very accommodating,” he said. “They have been very sensitive to what might be the specific needs of the Jewish residents … And I understand the level of care remains high, which it always was.”
Concordia, with its expertise in the business, is beginning to turn things around for the facility, increasing occupancy, and edging its way toward financial security.
“We couldn’t be more pleased,” said Frndak. “Several people have moved into the independent living units, and another five or six are waiting to move in, with a commitment. And we haven’t done anything formal for marketing yet.”
“We broke even in November,” he added. “I am extremely confident we will be in the black in the beginning of the year.”
While Concordia has made staff cuts in the food service department in order to help trim costs, Frndak said that Concordia of the South Hills is still “significantly better staffed than our other six facilities.”
“We believe the service and food have improved,” he continued, crediting foodservice provider Sodexo with the success in the kitchen.
The residents agree.
“The desserts are out of this world,” Charap said.
Frndak said his management team is already planning ahead to accommodate the needs of the Jewish residents for Passover, acknowledging that while the kitchen will not be kosher, Concordia will “respect the Passover celebration, and make sure people will have traditional foods. We’re going to do the best we can.”
Concordia, in its effort to maintain constant input from residents, has placed in its bylaws a requirement that a resident must serve on its board of directors. No such requirement existed when B’nai B’rith sponsored the facility.
“A lot of anxiety has been assuaged, as I see it,” Mahler said. “Nonetheless there’s this underlying sense [from the Jewish residents] that ‘we moved into a Jewish organization, and that no longer exists.’
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)