Is a kosher food fight brewing at Daughters of Miriam apartments?
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Is a kosher food fight brewing at Daughters of Miriam apartments?

Clara Levy, an 85-year-old tenant at the Daughters of Miriam Association apartments, is upset because she might have to move if she wants to continue receiving her one kosher meal a day.

The Daughters of Miriam Association, which runs several programs at the Daughters of Miriam Center in Clifton, including a nursing home, a rehab center, and adult day-care, has two seven-story apartment units that house some ’83 senior citizens of varying degrees of independence, according to DMC Chief Operating Officer Frank DaSilva. The buildings, designated Miriam I, which was built in 1968, and Miriam II, which was built in 1979, are both Housing and Urban Development subsidized, and each offers a daily kosher communal dinner in its dining hall. Buying into the meal plan, which costs each tenant $480 a month, is technically mandatory for tenants, according to HUD requirements, but tenants can opt out for several reasons, including cost and religious objection. Of the ’83 tenants, 157 are on the meal plan. (Tenants provide the remaining meals in their apartments.)

DaSilva caused a stir earlier this month when he informed the 40 tenants of Miriam I who are on the meal plan that DMC is planning to stop serving meals in their building and that if they wanted to continue on the program, they would have to move to Miriam II.

"We are used to coming here and sitting at tables with four people," said Levy, who spent most of her adult life in Passaic after escaping Poland in 1940. "To change this, and to move people would be traumatic at our age."

Levy, who is one of 4′ tenants who have signed a petition asking to be moved, is also concerned that moving to Miriam II is going to make her life more expensive. While all but 1′ of the 1’0 units in Miriam I are studio apartments with kitchenettes, every apartment in Miriam II is a one-bedroom with a kitchenette. The efficiencies in Miriam I cost $775 a month, while the Miriam II one-bedrooms cost $977, but since virtually all of the rents in both buildings are subsidized by HUD, the cost for tenants will not go up, according to DaSilva. Only the government’s share of the price will rise. DaSilva also said that his staff will move tenants at no cost.

But heating and electric are included in the rent in Miriam I. In Miriam II, tenants must pay monthly for electric. Housekeeping services are also $141 per month in Miriam II, versus $100 per month in Miriam I. The raise in dollars may not be huge, said Levy, but for seniors living on fixed incomes and on tight budgets, the cost could hurt.

"I used to clean a whole house by myself. I never had help in my life," she said. "But now I can’t clean by myself."

But DaSilva says that the move is necessary. As recently as eight years ago, the meal plan served more than ’00 tenants. But the number has dropped because the population at the apartments is becoming increasingly less Jewish and therefore more tenants are getting non-kosher food from off-campus. Also, he said, seniors are now spending more of their incomes on medication.

As the enrollment has dropped, the cost per meal has gone up, and, while Daughters of Miriam charges tenants $480 per month, the plan actually costs $580 per month, meaning that Daughters of Miriam is running the program at a deficit of around $150,000 per year.

That deficit has to be paid by the operating budget of the nursing home, even though it is a separate entity, and it has become an increasingly tougher sell to his board of trustees, DaSilva said.

He has explored a number of cost-cutting measures, including soliciting food donations from 50 different food distributors, but out of 50 distributors, only one responded, and that was with a no, according to DMC marketing and development director Caren Speizer.

DaSilva says that he can save $40,000 by consolidating the two separate meals he has to serve each day. All of the meals are prepared in Miriam II, which has a larger kitchen. Meals are then transported to Miriam I. He would be able to cut down on wait staff as well.

While several non-Jews are enrolled in the kosher meal program, it is overwhelmingly Jewish, and 75 percent of the tenants in Miriam II are Jewish, while only 50 percent are Jewish in Miriam I, so moving tenents from Miriam I to Miriam II makes more sense. In the future, prospective tenents requesting not to be on the meal plan would be placed in Miriam I. So far, 1′ tenents of Miriam I, including Levy have asked to be moved.

DaSilva said that he wants to keep offering the meal plan because seniors need the daily social interaction; it helps keep them from becoming shut-ins. "But, for me $110,000 a year is easier for me to sell to my board than $150,000," he said.

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