The father of Jewish Home Family retires
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The father of Jewish Home Family retires

Charles Berkowitz, visionary creator of compassionate services for the elderly, looks back

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Charles Berkowitz plants a tree as ground is broken for the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.

In 1970, when Charles P. Berkowitz of Glen Rock became assistant administrator at the Jewish Home and Rehabilitation Center in Jersey City, President Nixon was sending troops to Cambodia, antiwar riots were roiling college campuses, and the New York Marathon was making its debut.

Chuck Berkowitz, just 29 at the time, already had a vision far beyond that decade. He anticipated and implemented forward-thinking approaches to elder care that have earned him many awards and approbations in the past 44 years.

At the Jewish Home’s annual gala dinner last Sunday at the Rockleigh Country Club, he was feted upon his retirement as president and CEO of the Jewish Home Family, a position he held since June 2009. He became CEO of the Jersey City site in 1982. The facility, founded in 1915 as the Hebrew Orphans Home of Hudson County, moved to Rockleigh in 2001 as Hudson’s Jewish population declined.

“For almost half its history, the Jewish Home has been fortunate to have Chuck Berkowitz associated with it,” Jewish Home spokeswoman Melanie Cohen said.

“He has been a critical part of the birth of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh-Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living, the Jewish Home Assisted Living-Kaplen Family Senior Residence, the Gallen Adult Day Health Care Center, the Jewish Home’s Kosher-Meals-on-Wheels program, the Jewish Home at Home, and the Jewish Home Family,” she continued. (All of those organizations are part of the Jewish Home Family.) “In addition, he has given his time and talents selflessly to local, state and national professional elder care organizations, but also to a large number of our community’s social-service organizations.”

Mr. Berkowitz does not recall his parents being involved in the Jewish community of his native Newark, yet he always felt a pull toward helping others, he said. During the first year of his social-work master’s program at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School, he did field work at the JCC on the Palisades, then in Englewood, and the JCC awarded him a scholarship for his second year on the condition that he come to work there after earning his degree in 1966.

The JCC’s director, George Hantgan, later recommended Mr. Berkowitz for the job at the Jewish Home. “George is currently a resident of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, and I visit him daily,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “He and his wife, Ida – everyone calls her Hon – have always been good friends to me and to my wife, Rachel.”

Loyalty and friendship are hallmarks of Mr. Berkowitz’s approach to his personal and professional life. He notes with pride that the Jewish Home Family enjoys “tremendous longevity” among its 450 employees, which he feels contributes to the quality of care.

How has he fostered employee retention? “Doing the right thing in terms of compensation, being there as a friend when I can help them, and showing them the respect that they deserve,” he said.

The same can be said of his attitude toward the clientele of the various elements that make up the Jewish Home.

“Chuck is known on the national level for being a strong advocate for compassionate care for the elderly and infirm,” said Sunni Herman, executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. “As a visionary, he shepherded the Jewish Home to establish the place of prominence that it holds today.”

Indeed, Mr. Berkowitz has won many awards in recognition of his accomplishments. Years before he oversaw the purchase, construction, and opening of the Rockleigh facility, he developed proposals and secured funding for New Jersey’s first adult medical day care program, in 1972, as well as the Children’s Center for Special Needs and a federal Senior Companion Program in 1982.

In June 2012, he received the Dr. Herbert Shore Award of Honor from the Association of Jewish Aging Services of North America. To mark that milestone, the Berkowitz Gardens at the Rockleigh campus were dedicated in his honor.

The five-year-old Jewish Home at Home program is an especially strong reflection of his personal vision. This program’s goal is to help seniors remain at home, with appropriate care in place, while maintaining the highest possible level of independence and quality of life.

Mr. Berkowitz said that when the new facility in Rockleigh was in the planning stages, members of the board wanted it to have 450 beds, just as the Jersey City site did. But Mr. Berkowitz insisted on scaling back the nursing facility to 180 beds. Seven years ago, the 124-bed assisted-living program was opened.

“I felt that in the future, more emphasis would be put on keeping people at home, and clearly that’s what happened,” he said. “My feeling is that you need institutions, but I encourage people to keep loved ones in non-institutional settings when possible, as long as it doesn’t cause an undue burden on their family life.”

Mr. Berkowitz has been involved in organizations including the YJCC in Washington Township and sits on the boards of the Hackensack-based Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities and the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood.

“I’ve been very involved as a lay person in the community,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “I believe people should give of themselves, and I always follow that rule myself.”

Ruth Gafni, the head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, is among the many people who have benefitted from Mr. Berkowitz’s expertise.

When Mrs. Gafni became head of school six years ago, she asked the board to recommend someone who could both mentor her and serve as a role model. It recommended Mr. Berkowitz.

“I learned a tremendous amount of wisdom and compassion from him,” Mrs. Gafni said. “We still meet on a regular basis, and the mentoring has turned into friendship. He is a leader who cares for Jewish people in Bergen County and beyond.”

Mrs. Gafni cited Mr. Berkowitz’s swift response to a Schechter crisis last year, when the school’s agreement with a food vendor fell apart two days before classes were to begin. Mr. Berkowitz arranged lunches through the Rockleigh Home and managed, by trial and error, to produce menus that would appeal to both young students and senior citizens.

“He’s one of a kind and so delightful,” she said.

Mr. Berkowitz jokes that his wife need not worry that he will sit at home aimlessly after his retirement.

“Over the next year, I’ve committed myself to helping the incoming Jewish Home CEO, Carol Silver-Elliot, land on her feet, and also to help develop additional community services. And I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls regarding continuing my volunteer roles and getting involved in new ones. There are many opportunities for me.”

The Berkowitzes’ three children are Scott of Washington, D.C., a publishing consultant whose volunteer work includes chairing the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network for the past 20 years; Stephanie of Silver Spring, Md., a clinical social worker, and Michael, a regional sales executive who recently moved from Glen Rock to Hillsdale.

An avid athlete all his life, Mr. Berkowitz undoubtedly will have more time for golf and for visiting with his five grandchildren, including two sets of twin girls. But don’t expect him to grab any spotlights. He prefers listening to speaking.

“I consider myself a quiet person,” he said. “I don’t have to be the center of attention.”

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