Before the Sinai Residences in Boca Raton, Florida, opened in 2016, several hundred Jewish seniors who’d put down deposits received a survey about meals. Specifically, how important was kosher food?
Not important at all, it turned out. If Sinai were exclusively kosher, the vast majority said, they’d rescind their deposits. “They said having a kosher option was great, but being completely kosher would deter them from moving in,” said Chris Newport, Sinai’s executive director.
The Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, which developed the not-for-profit senior community, scrapped plans for a kosher kitchen. Pork and shellfish aren’t on the menu, but residents can dine on cheeseburgers and chicken Parmesan. All 234 independent-living apartments are occupied, and more than 60 people are on the waiting list.
Sinai is far from the only senior residence touting nonkosher fare in a Jewish communal setting. From Philadelphia to Silicon Valley, communities for aging Jews have been succumbing to a host of pressures to expand their menus beyond the limits of kashrut.
Some of that pressure is financial. Facilities pay a premium for kosher supervision of two kitchens with at least two sets of dishes and cutlery, and hekhshered meats, cheeses, and other products cost more than their nonkosher counterparts. But residents themselves exert an outsize influence on the menus of the communities where they plan to spend their last years. Many find kosher fare at best uninspiring and at worst, irrelevant. Their perspective reflects the paradoxical, quixotic relationship that most American Jews have with kosher food: It may be a good thing, but it’s not necessarily my thing.
About 1 in 5 Jewish Americans—22%—keep kosher at home, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. The more observant you are, the more likely you are to have a kosher home: 92% of Orthodox Jews said they have kosher kitchens, as did 31% of Conservative Jews and 7% of Reform Jews. The survey didn’t ask about food choices in restaurants or elsewhere.
Beverly Gareleck, who has kept a kosher home for more than five decades, lives in one of the 182 apartments at MorseLife’s Levin Palace in West Palm Beach, Florida. She regularly eats in the kosher dining room, which is supervised by the Orthodox Rabbinical Board of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. “I’m very happy to have the kosher restaurant. It means a lot to me,” said Gareleck, a Buffalo, New York, native. “It’s silly, but I feel it’s healthier, and it’s been looked at and taken care of in a better way.”
But if shrimp is on the menu in the nonkosher dining room, Gareleck will forgo kosher chicken pilaf, brisket, or prime rib. And when a group of friends plans a nonkosher meal, she’ll join them. About half of the 220 Palace residents opt for a kosher dinner each night, but only about 45 eat solely kosher food, said Keith A. Myers, president and CEO of MorseLife Health System.
The kosher versus nonkosher debate at Jewish senior residences was absent from this month’s conference agenda of the Association of Jewish Aging Services—not because it’s a topic members are afraid to discuss, but because they’ve already discussed it so much. “People are tired of talking about it,” said Stuart Almer, the conference’s co-chair and president and CEO of the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on Long Island. “It’s a sensitive issue to remain kosher or not.” About 20 of Gurwin’s 460 residents eat nothing but kosher food. At Long Island’s Parker Jewish Institute, where Almer previously worked, 20 of about 525 residents consistently ate food prepared in the kosher kitchen.
Relocating to a senior independent living community can be a fraught decision. Seniors must leave a familiar neighborhood and acknowledge the potential need for services such as assisted living and skilled nursing that “continuum of care” facilities offer.
Communal meals in a new residence help ease that transition and combat the loneliness and isolation many seniors experience. “It is really important; I can’t emphasize it enough,” said Joan Denison, executive director of Covenant Place in St. Louis, where as many as 100 seniors—most of them Jewish— eat a subsidized kosher meal five nights a week.
Matzo ball soup and challah are a comforting sight on a Friday night table, invoking a shared culture and history. “The food is a very easy item to say what makes a facility Jewish,” Almer said. “Food is a big part of it. It’s an obvious and tangible thing.”
When seniors choose a community, the meals—their quality, variety, taste, and presentation—carry disproportionate weight. “If you’re in your 80s or 90s, what’s the only thing you can control?” said Newport, of Sinai Residences. “You maybe can’t drive any more, your family has passed away or your kids are grown up and your spouse may have died. You can control only one thing: your food.”
Administrators are paying close attention, particularly as 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, a trend that will continue through the next decade. “The preferences of our senior-living residents are what’s really going to drive our business model,” Newport said. “As long as the residents are able to have the things they want in their lives, that’s what’s going to really trigger them to move into senior living.”
Enticing Jewish elders means accommodating their preferences, said Martin Goetz, CEO of River Garden Senior Services in Jacksonville, Florida. “If there is a trend, it’s away from kosher or ‘kosher is optimal.’ That’s for survival.” That shift is occurring across the country, either in one fell swoop or by degrees.
In Philadelphia, ownership changes and residents’ preferences led two predominately Jewish senior residences—Martins Run Senior Residential Community and the Golden Slipper Health and Rehab Center—to eliminate their kosher kitchens. Golden Slipper, now the Glendale Uptown Home, transitioned to kosher-style meals in 2013 for its 200 residents, most of whom were Jewish.
Martins Run in Media, Pennsylvania, added a nonkosher kitchen after requests from prospective and current residents. The community was eventually acquired by Wesley Enhanced Living, which has roots in the Evangelical Association of Churches. Wesley’s website still touts its “kosher food of the highest standards under strict rabbinical supervision.” The four remaining residents who keep kosher eat their prepared dinners together at a single table. “Am I disappointed? Yes,” said Ethel Hamburger, 91, who chose Martins Run 12 years ago for its kosher food and Jewish population. “It’s not the place it was.” A Wesley spokeswoman declined comment.
New cafes opening this spring on Jewish community center campuses that include senior residences in St. Louis and West Palm Beach will be serving nonkosher food to Jewish seniors, their families, and the community.
The kosher kitchens on the 50-acre MorseLife campus in West Palm Beach feed residents of the assisted living center, adult day care programs, a kosher Meals on Wheels program, students at four Jewish schools, and seniors who eat in the kosher dining rooms in the Palace, where Gareleck lives. But the bistro that opens on campus in June—where Palace residents will be able to eat at no charge, since their meals are included—will serve food from the nonkosher kitchen in the independent-living building.
Covenant Place in St. Louis is part of the Millstone Campus, which includes the St. Louis JCC, the federation, and the va’ad. In June, a new building is set to open that will include medical services, physical therapy, and geriatric care facilities, as well as a new café. Seniors who live in Covenant Place’s 355 apartments—which each have kitchens—can eat at the new bistro on campus if they wish; it’s also open to everyone else, including health-care staff who serve the seniors and families who use the JCC.
“We had a big debate: Should we be kosher or nonkosher,” said Denison. The compromise was a dairy kitchen under rabbinic supervision and a meat one that is not. As many as 100 seniors who pay $3.50 for subsidized communal dinners catered by Kohn’s Kosher Meat and Deli Restaurant will have to opt for a dairy dinner if they want a kosher meal; meat meals will be made in-house, in the nonkosher kitchen.
Denison views the two cafes as a win-win: Kosher-observant families can enjoy a meal out together, and those who want more choices and affordable options can have that, too. “The key is to just be respectful,” she said, “and try to serve the whole gamut of those choices.”
Despite pressures to abandon kosher fare, some proponents are holding their ground, at least for now. When Alexander Ben-Israel became executive director of the 193-unit Moldaw Residences on the Taube Koret Center for Jewish Life in Palo Alto, California, three years ago, prepackaged kosher entrees were “miserable” and mushy. Ben-Israel brought the kosher program in-house, adding a mashgiach, multiple sets of dishes, and meat and dairy dishwashers. Participation doubled to about 25 residents.
“We had a philosophical commitment to the residents to offer kosher dining,” Ben-Israel said. “It’s just the right thing to do, that people who lived a kosher life all their lives would be able to continue to do it. … We call ourselves a Jewish facility, and it would feel kind of funny not offering it.”
But a nonkosher meal costs $15 to make, and a kosher one costs $27, adding an extra $70,000 a year to Moldow’s expenses. The facility is covering the difference for now, though it may eventually be passed on to residents.
In Jacksonville, kosher food costs River Garden an additional $300,000 a year even with staff—not rabbinic—supervision, “but that’s the cost of being who we are,” Goetz said. “We hold ourselves out to serve the entire community. … If Jews no longer connect with their synagogues, at least they are in a place that feels Jewish, does Jewish, and sounds Jewish, even if they’re not observant.” River Garden is Northeast Florida’s sole Jewish senior residence and nursing home.
Goetz, who has been CEO for 40 years, knows better than to ask the seniors what they want to eat. “We don’t put kosher on the agenda to be voted on by residents, because it would fail,” he said. “The residents here love bacon, ham, shrimp, and lobster.”
One day, some might get it. “I see the trend continuing away from kosher. I think it’s inexorable,” Goetz said. “I’m not willing to go out of business because I’m a kosher facility. If no one’ll come here because I’m kosher and it’s too expensive to serve it, I’d need to revisit our mission and our philosophy.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
June D. Bell is a San Francisco-area journalist who has written for The Forward, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), The National Law Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle.