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Caring for Seniors

HAKOL, April 2013

Every Monday, Marty Goldstein, 87, walks from his home on 22nd Street to the Jewish Community Center for Friendship Circle.


It’s something he won’t be able to do if and when the JCC moves further west, not that he begrudges the need for the change. Having never driven, he’s no stranger to public transportation either, but buses don’t go that way, he said.


“Seniors have limited places to go. There are a lot of them that can’t drive,” he said. “If they do get out, [Friendship Circle is] a good place that they can go every week, they look forward to that. They get lunch and they get entertainment and I just think it helps fulfilling your life a little better, it makes things worthwhile.”


Addressing the need for transportation for seniors is just one piece of what the strategic planning team will be looking at in the months and years ahead. Caring for seniors, as noted in the Jewish Community Strategic Plan approved by the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s Board of Directors last year, is critical to the future of the community.


“To me, finally working on what we’re going to do with our older adults is something that’s really important,” said Wendy Born, president of the Federation during much of the strategic planning process and a member of the committee that will now address senior issues. While the concern has always been there, having a roadmap will help the community hone in on what can realistically be done, by when and at what cost, she said.


According to the plan, the community should expand the availability of formal and informal supportive services to older Jewish people that allow them to maximize their well-being and independence and be connected to Jewish life. This should include seniors “aging in place” and living in residential facilities.


The Beth Tikvah Model


Yes, having a fully supported Jewish residential facility would be ideal. But, it was quickly determined, in a community of this size, it just isn’t feasible in the 21st century.


“The community could not sustain a senior living facility. That’s one of the things that was very difficult to move away from,” said Barry Halper, current Federation president and co-chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee. “It took some time for people to realize there just isn’t the demand that could satisfy the need for an entire facility. Once you make that decision, then you have to look at, OK, there are still seniors that are living in residential facilities, how do you provide a Jewish atmosphere for them?”


The question goes way back. “It started with the first settlers,” said Allentown native Ruth Sachs Meislin. “They bought land … in my grandfather’s time because they were determined to have a ‘home for the elderly.’”


Meislin succeeded her aunt on an exploratory committee that also included Robert Margolis, z”l; Al Pell, z”l; and Rabbi Allen Juda, thus representing Allentown and Bethlehem. The group soon involved representatives of Easton and “went all over,” Meislin said, in the quest, first to find a way to build a Jewish home, and when that group, too, deemed the project not feasible, to customize a unit or floor of an existing building.


Some of the committee members had connections to former Pennsylvania Gov. George Leader. “He and his wife, Mary Jane, took a tremendous interest in personalizing a wing when they were building Leader Nursing Center [in Bethlehem],” Meislin said. They built a 31-bed wing for Jewish residents, later expanded to 41 beds, that included a kosher kitchen, Jewish chapel, dining room and lounge.


Sandy Wruble was hired as the personal services manager for the unit. “Sandy was the glue that made it work, that made it unbelievably successful,” Meislin said. The idea of a Jewish wing in a non-sectarian facility was a good one; the Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Service were nationally recognized for Beth Tikvah with a Council of Jewish Federations’ Schroeder Award.


Looking back, Wruble is able to view the facility from both a Jewish and a care provider viewpoint. “It was purely skilled nursing, with rehabilitation and activities,” she said. Some of the residents of Beth Tikvah hadn’t kept kosher, but Wruble would tell their adult children, “Yes, but I’ll bet your mother would like a bowl of chicken soup, or a nice brisket with kugel.”


The Beth Tikvah program was subsidized by the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. Nevertheless, the number of Jewish residents declined because of the desire for the seniors to be closer to their children or their doctors and the changing needs of seniors entering such facilities.


“The assisted living facilities came into being, with the freedom and independence they offer, even though it’s not kosher,” Wruble said.


In the early 21st century, the wing was filled mainly with non-Jewish residents, and the nursing home ended the partnership because  the nature of skilled nursing care had changed over the years and because the business model of the facility was updated to meet new market realities.


Jewish Residence Life Today


Although the ending of formal community support was troubling and upsetting for some, there is a legacy that continues today: Leader’s son, G. Michael Leader, is president and CEO of Country Meadows, a senior residential and assisted living facility whose Allentown campus stands out from other Valley facilities in its offerings for Jewish seniors and currently has a critical mass of Jewish residents.


Rabbi Melody Davis of Temple Covenant of Peace in Easton is the Jewish chaplain at Country Meadows in Allentown. Each Friday afternoon, she brings Jewish texts and leads a study session there. Recognizing that not everyone is drawn to large groups, Davis takes the time to knock on doors “to say hello” to some of the other 30 to 40 Jewish residents.


There’s a monthly Shabbat service led by Monica Lemelman and by Elaine Langer, whose father Al, z”l, was a very long-term and much-loved resident.


“They [also] have a wonderful, special dinner that Susan Wolfson and her husband provide at Pesach, High Holidays, Thanksgiving and maybe Chanukah,” Davis said.


Cooky Notis from Jewish Family Service visits regularly and offers holiday-related programming; other clergy visit, and so do the youth choir and Jewish youth groups.


“There is a feeling among some residents,” Davis said, “they will go to anything Jewish, not necessarily because they want to, but because it is being provided and they have an obligation to support it because it’s Jewish.”


While few can match Country Meadows’ offerings, Luther Crest holds a seder; Bnai Brith apartments, now with just a handful of Jewish residents, has a monthly Shabbat service.


One idea under consideration is for the Jewish community to find ways to again partner creatively with existing residential facilities and promote them as places to find Jewish life.


Those facilities would ideally need to accommodate the religious, social and dietary needs of their Jewish residents, said Patty Glascom, co-chairwoman of the seniors committee and vice president of  Jewish Family Service. They would also need to offer a full range of care, from independent living onward, she said.


“It’s very fragmented now. There are Jewish residents in small numbers in just about every one of the retirement facilities in the area,” Glascom said. “I feel that if there was a central place, the programming could be more in-depth ... more meaningful, more often. That, I think, would be comforting for the residents and their families.”


Aging in Place


There are several ideas on the table about how to help older Jewish adults who want to -- or have to -- remain in their homes.


Setting up a “concierge service,” whereby a single person would be the go-to for the needs of seniors in the Jewish community, is one possibility the strategic planning implementation committee will explore.


”When you’re trying to make these difficult decisions, if you’re going through a channel and a community that is home, I think that tends to dampen a little bit of that anxiety,” said Nan Ronis, who will co-chair the seniors committee with Glascom.


There are, of course, resources that already exist within Jewish Family Service that the committee may look to have strengthened. To add to that, the Jewish Federation is in the process of hiring a part-time staffer to coordinate the planning to address the needs of seniors as laid out in the strategic plan.


For seniors at home, transportation will continue to be a big issue that needs to be addressed.


“In this community, why it’s particularly difficult is because we’re so spread out and people are pretty dependent on cars,” said Debbie Zoller, executive director of Jewish Family Service of the Lehigh Valley.


Providing quality programming for older adults living outside of residential facilities is another facet that the strategic plan urges the community to consider.


In truth, the seniors committee is just beginning to look at the many options available. But the idea is to make strides in this arena as soon as possible.


Success, said Glascom, would be to have facilities identified that could meet the needs of Jewish residents, have a concierge-type service in place, a larger volunteer corps and “provide peace of mind for aging seniors in the Jewish community.”


Interested in serving on the seniors committee? Contact the Federation at 610-821-5500 or




Strategic Planning Steering Committee

    Barry Halper, co-chairman

    Mark Scoblionko, co-chairman

    Wendy Born

    Lawrence Center

    Gail Eisenberg

    Mark L. Goldstein

    Robert A. Hammel

    Dr. Debbie Kimmel

    Stuart Krawitz

    Rabbi Allen Juda

    Dr. Lawrence Levitt

    Michael Miller

    Judith Rodwin

    Nan Ronis

    Dr. Alex Rosenau

    Dr. Nicole Rosenthal

    Vicki Wax

    Strategic Planning Implementation Oversight Committee

      Wendy Born

      Karen Cooper

      Gail Eisenberg

      Iris Epstein

      Pat Glascom

      Mark L. Goldstein

      Barry Halper

      Robert Hammel

      Michael Miller

      Judith Rodwin

      Nan Ronis

      Dr. Nicole Rosenthal

      Cantor Kevin Wartell

      Dr. Michael Weinstock

      Get Involved

        Four task forces have been established to address the issues of seniors, education and programming, Jewish education that’s non day school-related and new ways of looking at fundraising.


        Are you passionate about one (or more) of these issues?


        Contact the Jewish Federation at 610-821-5500 or to get involved today.