Battle Is On To Save Senior Centers

Kosher lunches at survivors’ club and senior center threatened as cuts loom.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 7:00 am

by Cynthia Magnus

For 250 or so HolocausProtesters at City Hall rally last Friday against senior center closures. Cynthia Magnust survivors in Brooklyn, Club Nissim and the Boro Park Y Senior Center provide a daily sanctuary to their members. The closely connected programs provide the opportunity for people like Sara Sussman to exercise, socialize and break kosher bread with friends whose pasts link them in special ways.

“This is my life, this is my home,” said Sussman about the senior center. Now in her 80s, she lost her entire family in the war and today lives on a fixed income.

That “home” is now threatened. The senior center may close entirely, and Club Nissim may lose the ability to provide some services if New York City proceeds with plans to shutter 105 senior centers citywide because of cuts to the Department for the Aging (DFTA), which will include the kosher lunches. The cuts may be necessary if the city loses state aid.

Sussman said that without having the senior center as a daily destination she would spend all her time thinking about her past. “The empty walls at home drive you crazy,” she said.

She comes to the Y Senior Center every day to exercise, play Rummikub with friends and to hear lectures. “They have beautiful lunches,” Sussman told The Jewish Week on a recent visit.

The Club Nissim program would continue to operate after the cuts, but with many of its offerings curtailed. Lunch, trips and daily transportation to and from the building that houses both Club Nissim and the Boro Park Y Senior Center are funded by a grant from DFTA.

“This is an unparalleled community outside of Israel,” said Simonne Hirschhorn, the club’s program director. “That our government, the people to whom we pay taxes, are unwilling to provide a kosher lunch [to these seniors] is unconscionable.”

Club Nissim is supported by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, but its members are entitled as senior citizens to the kosher lunch offered at the Y senior center. So when the Club Nissim program was founded in 2001 by a committee led by Ellie Kastel, the executive director of the Y, funding for food was intentionally omitted from the budget in order to make its other resources go further.

The lunch program at the Boro Park Y Senior Center is funded, like at other city senior centers, by DFTA.

That will change if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $25.2 million reduction of Title XX funding to New York City is approved for fiscal year 2011-2012.

The center is, like the two other centers that are threatened with closure in Borough Park, responsible for serving a strictly kosher lunch to its religiously observant Jewish membership — 70 percent of whom are Holocaust survivors. More than 110 members eat lunch daily at the center. “The area that has the highest population of Holocaust survivors in the city will not be able to provide food to them that is acceptable,” said Kastel. “We understand that the state is having a problem, but the people being asked to shoulder this are those most vulnerable.”

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Marc Lavorgna, said of the proposed cuts, “Hard decisions had to be made.”

And on Tuesday, following a City Council budget hearing, Department for the Aging Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli said she shared concern about the potential loss of kosher lunches to observant seniors. “I’m very sensitive that some populations have special considerations,” she said. “I’m very concerned because I know they will not go elsewhere. If funds are cut,” she said, “we will regroup and take a look at ways in which we might possibly offer limited services.” Home attendant Bernice Christopher, who is also certified as a nurse’s aide, accompanies her 99-year-old client, a survivor and widow living on a limited income, to the Boro Park Y daily. They attend Club Nissim programs, as well as the exercise classes and lunch service at the senior center. They rely on the van service that the Y currently provides for transportation. It is funded in part with DFTA dollars, and would disappear with the closure of the senior center.

Christopher is “very concerned” about what the loss of the center would mean to her client, a socially active woman who enjoys chair calisthenics, educational lectures and the kosher lunch sold for $1.50.

The Y Senior Center’s program director, Judy Liff, said that many of her clients do not cook for themselves, and some save a portion of their lunch to bring home for dinner. “This is their big meal of the day,” said Liff. In addition to being kosher, she explained, the lunch also meets government-mandated nutritional requirements.

Kastel described other consequences that would result from the closure of the Y Senior Center. A weekly GrowNYC Greenmarket operates on the block from July through November, and seniors get DFTA-funded coupons to purchase fresh food. These would be lost with the closing of the center.

Kastel also said that the location is an official cooling center, and that anyone in community can come for relief in a heat emergency. This resource would disappear if the center closed. She estimated that in past heat waves, 100 seniors would stay until the extended 8 p.m. closing time.

“At the end of the day, we need to save these centers — plain and simple,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who represents Borough Park. “I know we have budget problems, but to touch senior centers is despicable. Senior centers should not even be on the table for discussion.”

Other DFTA-funded senior centers that serve kosher lunch are on the potential chopping block. Among them are the Shalom Senior Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and several centers citywide that are administered by the Jewish Association for Services to the Aged (JASA).

“We are serving a real need in the community,” said Elaine Rockoff, JASA director of community-based programs. “All centers have case workers on site. If staff notices a need for intervention, they can make referrals. This can avoid crises.”

The JASA Van Cortlandt Senior Center in the Bronx serves lunch to an average of 65 seniors daily, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, according to its program director, Sharon Wolfe. The center’s kosher kitchen also prepares meals for the JASA West Side Senior Center in Manhattan, also on the DFTA closure list. JASA has four centers in Brooklyn that are on the “cut list.”

JASA Brighton/Manhattan Beach serves 148 meals per day, offering exercise, education and creative programs to its members. The center serves a 90-percent Jewish clientele who, if the center closes, could not be accommodated at the other nearby JASA centers, Senior Alliance and Shorefront. Those centers are already at capacity, serving kosher lunches to 200 and 180 members respectively.

Shimon Herz directs the Shalom Senior Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It is the only kosher-lunch senior center in a five-to-seven-mile radius, and serves 70 members daily, plus 30 to 40 meals delivered to the homebound. A caterer who is under the supervision of the Beth Din of Crown Heights provides the center’s food. Its seniors, mostly Jewish but also including African Americans and Latinos, are 95 percent kosher observant, and use the center to socialize as well as to lunch. “Once you walk through these doors, there is no ethnicity here,” says Herz. He says that most members live on fixed incomes, and it would be a hardship for many to find alternatives to the lunch program.

Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Kingsbridge/Riverdale/Norwood) chairs the Assembly Committee on the Aging, and said he has made the restoration of Title XX money his top priority. His Feb. 18 letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, signed by an additional 56 members, urges the speaker to “work with the Senate and the executive” to reject the budget proposal that would reduce $25.2 million in funding to the city’s senior centers.

Dinowitz said it was unnecessary for DFTA to announce on March 3 the individual names of the 105 senior centers that might be closed, as this caused perhaps unwarranted anxiety to many seniors. “This is not a cut, it’s a proposal,” he said. “If and when the state made the cut, that would have been the time to announce the names. If we do our jobs, I’m optimistic that we can prevent the loss of Title XX funding.”

“I’m hopeful that the governor will agree that the money should be restored, because I know he wants to do the right thing,” Dinowitz said.

Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, chair of the council’s Committee on Aging, stated, “I think that there’s a real benefit to knowing exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about senior centers closing. It made a somewhat abstract discussion very concrete so that we know exactly what’s at stake in this budget.”

DFTA spokesman Christopher Miller said the reason for publicizing the names, was in a word: “transparency. This was not a political decision,” he said. “We wanted to be as transparent as possible and prepare the centers that might potentially close.”

Lena Hochheiser, 90, a Holocaust survivor has been coming to the Boro Park Y Senior Center since becoming a widow eight years ago. She lives on Social Security and is anxious about the specter of being forced to find an alternative place for a kosher lunch, among other things, if the state funding is cut.

“Restaurants are expensive,” she said, “and I don’t cook at home because one of my hands don’t move.” In addition to the lunch, she goes to the center for exercise classes and to see friends. She worries about becoming depressed without a place to go to daily.

Irene Friedman, in her 80s, worries how, if the Boro Park Y Senior Center closes, she will see her friends. “The Y is my second home, my second family, and they want to take it away from me.”

“These Holocaust survivors, who came to America with tremendous gratitude, and worked industriously to build America and make it great, feeling that America is the savior, are the good guys — and now their kosher lunch is being taken away from them?” asked Club Nissim’s Hirschhorn. “In today’s world, where multiculturalism is so honored in so many aspects, why not here?”

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz told a crowd of senior citizens and their advocates who had gathered at City Hall on March 11 to protest the proposed cuts: “When we reach our golden years they should be our best years. Government owes that to each and every one of you.”

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