On the one hand, people live there.
Most of the residents of the Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh are old, many are frail, and all need help with at least some of the physical demands of ordinary life.
They come to the light-flooded, always-clean-but-never-sterile building with long histories, with memories of joy and frequently with more-recent memories of sadness, with fear, pain, and fatigue, as well as with hope and love. Many of them are fragile, and they bring their entire lives to the building.
They must be treated with respect, attention, and care.
On the other hand, the Jewish Home is a big institution, part of an even larger one, called the Jewish Home Family, which oversees assisted living, adult daycare programs, and services that allow people to age in place at home, and provides cutting-edge social services to participants.
Those two truths — the delicate, ever-changing, and always individual reality of every human life and the large-scale needs of a complex, financially and organizationally demanding organization — meet at the Jewish Home Family’s various institutions. The corners have to meet with precision.
According to Eli Ungar of Englewood, the president of the Jewish Home Family’s board, they do.
Although most people would acknowledge the importance of institutions like the Jewish Home Family’s constituent parts — along with the Berrie home, they include the self-explanatory Jewish Home Assisted Living Kaplen Family Senior Residence in River Vale; the Jewish Home at Home, which provides in-home services; and the Jewish Home Foundation, responsible for fund-raising — not many are attracted intuitively to adopting them as primary charitable causes.
That once was true of Mr. Ungar as well, he said. “I became involved with the Jewish Home a number of years ago, when a friend who was on the board asked me to go to a meeting,” he said. “I said that I am happy to go with you, but this is not something that I had thought about.
“If you had asked me to come up with a list of things I was interested in, it wouldn’t have been first. Or fifth. Or seventh. Or tenth. But I did go.”
What Mr. Ungar saw at that first meeting foreshadowed what he came to learn about the entire organization.
“At first, I was taken aback by the age of most of the board members,” he said. “I admit to a certain set of preconceived notions. It looked more like a gathering of grandparents. I was about 39 then — I’m 49 now — and the average age in the room probably was 80.
“The evening began with dinner, and once people started talking, I was utterly stunned by their sophistication and thoughtfulness, and by their range of perspectives. One person after another spoke, each more thoughtful than the last one. It was a remarkable collection of talented, accomplished people, who had come together to make the organization work and prosper.
“Many of them had made significant financial contributions, but that wasn’t what made it interesting to me. It was that this was a group of people who could have been doing other things, but who considered this not only a worthwhile but an essential thing to do.
“Over the ensuing weeks and months, I got to understand the organization and the people better, and I also learned more about why it is so important. Chuck Berkowitz” — the institution’s long-time head, who retired last year — “spent time with me, touring Rockleigh and River Vale. He and others introduced me to nurses and residents and aides and others who worked throughout the organization.
“It was this consistent commitment to help people age with dignity, and to infuse that part of their lives with vitality — that was profoundly different from what I had expected to find there, and from what I assumed about nursing homes in general.
“In talking to other board members, and in learning the story of how the organization evolved over time, and the facilities in Rockleigh and River Vale came into existence, I heard a remarkable story of a community simply deciding that it would do something on the highest possible level and refusing to accept anything less.”
The Jewish Home Family, which is celebrating its centennial this year, began as an orphanage in Jersey City; it was incorporated as the Hebrew Orphans Home of Hudson County in 1915. In the 1930s, as the depression wore down people who hadn’t begun the decade comfortably, the need to provide housing for the elderly as well as for the abandoned young became clear. The institution began accepting the elderly, and its name was changed to Hebrew Home for Orphans and Aged of Hudson County. It chugged along, serving both those groups but focusing more and more on old people, until after World War II. Then, as the waves of returning GIs and the Bill that helped them get started streamed out of Hudson County, heading northward to Bergen, the Hebrew Home followed the pull of the tide.
Throughout the next decades, the Hebrew Home added services and facilities, changing along with the constituency, following its needs and its demographics, until, within the last few years, it took the shape it has today.
It’s typical of the community, Mr. Ungar said. “I was born here” — he is one of the sons of Andre Ungar, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake and one of North Jersey’s eminences grises — “and I spent most of my adult life here, so I can’t speak to other communities, but I do know that here we have a fierce pride in preserving and protecting and growing the Jewish community and its organizations. We have a wonderful balance between being patriotic Americans and proud Jews. Many of the people who built the Jewish Home, as well as the JCC” — he’s talking specifically about the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly — “were veterans. There was a long-term perspective that permeated all the discussions.
“As the board chair, I am heir to all this enormous work that preceded me,” Mr. Ungar said. “We define our success by trying to do those things that will allow future generations to look at our accomplishments as we look at our predecessors’.”
Although the board is now more representative of the community’s demographics than it was when he joined it, “for a lot of reasons, there are logical impediments to people in their 30s joining it,” he continued. “They are not necessarily ready to become deeply committed to an organization that might not resonate with them as educational institutions might.”
And let’s be clear. “The truth of death” — and of course the older you get the closer you come to it — “makes it all the more important that we find a way to make ourselves known and compelling to people not just when they or their parents look to us as service providers, but before then, as part of a community.
“Many of us have been blessed with grandparents, and we have enormously fond associations and relationships with them,” he said. “There is nobody who would say ‘I don’t want my grandparent to be treated in a respectful and thoughtful and proactive way. And that’s the beginning of empathy.
“No one in our organization thinks of what we are doing as managing or overseeing a nursing home. We would describe what we are involved in as making sure that everyone is being treated as we would like our grandparents or parents or spouses or siblings or anyone else we love to be treated.
“This is in some ways a very intimate conversation. It is not about budgets and financing and property management — although it is also about those things. It is about our loved ones, and making sure that they have what they need to live actively, even when they no longer can live independently.
“I once heard someone involved in building in Rockleigh say, ‘We built the Jewish Home as if it were for us — as if we would be moving into it.’
“You can see that in the details,” he continued. “There are no shared rooms at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, even though at times that was a great expense. But there is a dignity and a quality of life that we wanted to make a reality.”
Talking about reality, “there is no question that there is a business component to this,” Mr. Ungar said. “The Jewish Home has done a wonderful job over the years in sustaining itself and being proactive. The financial piece is the insufficient but necessary starting point. The real heart of the effort is to create homes that are joyous and engaging and diverse, so that people who interact with our organization, in any capacity, feel that it is an uplifting and engaging part of their lives, not the unfortunate but unavoidable last chapter, which often is the case in nursing homes.
“This is the reality — through modern science we live longer, and so we have the privilege of dealing with more and more medical conditions than our predecessors did. So we have to make sure that the goal is not just living longer, but living happier.”
The Jewish Home encourages intergenerational programming — in a way, it is echoing its origins as a haven for both abandoned children and enfeebled adults. It encourages its residents to use technology to connect with their families — if they can’t make the Skype or FaceTime on their iPads work, volunteers can do it for them. Residents not only can email their grandchildren, they even can play bridge online. It also encourages the volunteers, whose expertise and time are so valuable. “There are ways to contribute that go way beyond writing a check — although we are not averse to people writing checks!” Mr. Ungar said. “Whether it’s putting up a sukkah for someone who can’t do it, or getting a senior to communicate with grandchildren online, to helping beautify the building or delivering kosher meals on wheels — there are hundreds of ways to support seniors. Some of them are easily done and take little time; others take much more time and are more engaging.
“All the local day schools have programming that connects with the Jewish Home,” he continued. “They come in and break down what historically has been a divide between children at home and older people in the homes. The more we can eliminate that divide, the better for everyone.”
Jewish Home at Home is the continuation of a newer trend than nursing homes — the move to keep older people living at home as long as possible, perhaps for all of their lives. The program, among other services, helps people modify their houses to make them safer and to allow them to use specialized equipment that otherwise they’d have to go out to get.
All this takes money, Mr. Ungar acknowledges. “We live in a community where some people struggle every day, and others struggle on no day, not ever,” he said. “Something our community has done masterfully is create accessible programming, and those who can afford to pay for the services can and do pay for them, while the community does its best to make those services available to everyone else. Our definition of success is to be able to help as many people as possible in a sustainable way.
“We measure success not by revenue but by the extent to which we can enable someone in our care to live fully and safely and joyously. These things are increasingly difficult as we age, and our physical difficulties increase, so one of the challenges for us is to make sure that we continue to define success in that way.
“It is easier to look at a financial statement to see how we did than to know how we did in making sure that people are able to live the way we’d want our grandparents or parents to live.
“If we pass that test, then we are doing that job,” Mr. Ungar said. “But you should also send us a check!”
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