Older Adult Task Force: How did it start? Where is it headed?

By Rabbi Allen Juda
Chair of the Older Adult Task Force

The New York Times printed the article “A Home for Aged Notes 100th Year” in its May 3, 1970, issue. “One hundred years ago this month,” the article stated, “with thanks to the many ‘benevolent and charitable ladies of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, under the leadership of Mrs. Henry Leo,’ the Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews first opened its doors on West 17th Street….” There are those who think this was the first Jewish nursing home facility in the United States.

How times have changed!

In the past few years, Jewish skilled nursing and older adult facilities operated for decades by the Jewish communities in the Philadelphia area, in Harrisburg and in Pittsburgh have been sold. The combination of inadequate reimbursement by Medicaid and the increasing challenge of staffing, especially during the Covid years, made the operation of these facilities financially impossible.

The current realities highlight the wisdom of our Jewish community in the days of Beth Tikvah. A joint project of the Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Service, Beth Tikvah was a Jewish wing in a for-profit nursing home. Our only capital expense was to pay for kitchen equipment for one of the two kosher kitchens. When Beth Tikvah closed, we simply walked away from the building with no debt.

Following a major demographic study of the Lehigh Valley Jewish community in 2007-08 and a subsequent strategic plan, the Federation recognized that the future for older adults was to “age in place.” Working cooperatively with JFS, the Federation continues to develop concrete services that will make it easier, safer and more comfortable for our Jewish older adults to remain in their homes as long as possible.

For several years, JFS has been delivering Mazel Meals to older adults who can no longer prepare meals for themselves and may be alone for holidays and Shabbat. The Mazel Meal program provides touch points including reminder phone calls and interactions with volunteer drivers. The JFS Case Management program connects older adults to other resources such as transportation and guidance about residential options, and to other programs and services in the community. For older adults seeking counseling, our licensed clinical social worker accepts Medicare.  Expanding all these efforts and providing new services is a hope for the future. But as with all programs, we will need to turn to the community for additional financial support.

The joint Jewish Federation-Jewish Family Service Older Adult Task Force has already established a minor home repair referral service and a leaf raking project for this November. And in early October, a random sampling of Jewish older adults across the Lehigh Valley will be receiving a very brief email survey that will help determine the future direction of the task force. If you are randomly selected, please take a couple of minutes to fill out and return the email survey.

As a Jewish community, we strive to keep in the forefront of our planning the mandate of our tradition to respect and take care of our older members. The Torah (Leviticus 19:32) teaches us, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old….” Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten.”

We in the Lehigh Valley Jewish community are committed to remembering and revering our older adults.