As we often are told, Jewish continuity is a chain. Each one of us is a link, connected to the generation before us at one end, and the generation after us at the other.
It’s a sweet abstraction, but it’s not necessarily so easy to embody when it leaves the realm of the ethereal and comes down to earth.
How do we care for our elders? How do we treat them with dignity and respect, and also with the cutting-edge treatments that will improve their lives, even as those lives draw nearer to their close?
The Jewish Home at Rockleigh, like the rest of the Jewish Home Family of which it is perhaps the most visible part, takes its mission to serve the community seriously. It’s provided care where care is needed the most since 1912, when it opened in Jersey City as an orphanage, providing homes to children who otherwise would have had none. Although the care it provided would seem horrifying to us today, it was state-of-the-art then.
Our understanding of the kind of care people need most, along with breakthroughs in the technology and biotechnology that can provide that care, keeps evolving. The Jewish Home — which had changed both its focus and its address as demographics changed — moved up to Rockleigh in 2001. The building and the care it provided was cutting-edge then. Today, not so much; it’s still really good, but it’s perhaps a bit dated. Things have changed.
That why the Jewish Home at Rockleigh had a groundbreaking ceremony for its new building on Sunday.
The story started when the Jewish Home was able to buy the land next to it, giving it room not only to dream but also to expand. After extensive studies, its leaders decided on a three-phase project. The groundbreaking represents the start of the first phase.
The new Center for Rehabilitation Excellence will offer state-of-the art facilities and therapies; as we reported when it first was announced, it will include not only speech, occupational, and physical therapies — all necessary but not at all new — but also warm-water therapy. Two therapy pools will allow patients to enter on wheelchairs that run on underwater tracks; underwater cameras will record underwater movements.
The new two-story building will include 60 private rooms — four units of 15 beds each — for short-term in-house stays. “What is wonderful is that we will have the opportunity to provide outpatient services in a way that we hadn’t had before,” Carol Silver Elliott said. Ms. Elliott is the Jewish Home’s CEO and president. “Until now, our space has been really tight. This will allow us to have really robust inpatient and outpatient programs.”
Although most of the rehab patients are over 65 years old, not all of them are, and they need not be; “people come here after surgery, or after an illness, when they had been hospitalized and become debilitated,” Ms. Elliott said. “Some come as the result of an accident. There are many reasons for people to come here.” The average stay is about 16 days, she said, but that varies widely and depends on the underlying reason for that stay.
Just as the chain of Jewish continuity is interwoven with links, so too are the phases of the building at the Jewish Home. Once the 60 rooms are open for business — the plan is to be ready by the end of 2019, although that timing is dependent on how long it takes the various necessary legal approvals to come through — that will open up space in the main building.
Then, once the short-term rehab patients are in the other building, the space can be reconfigured for the long-time nursing home residents. The plan eventually is to house them in small clusters, where neither they nor their caregivers will have to trek down long unwelcoming halls for the services they need, and where people with various diagnoses can take heart and hope for at least friendship from each other.
And that chain?
Another link was forged when the new center was named. It will be the Charles P. Berkowitz Center for Rehabilitation Excellence. It’s named for Chuck Berkowitz of Glen Rock, Ms. Elliott’s predecessor as president and CEO, who led the organization for 45 years.
“We wouldn’t have the foundation to build on for the future without Chuck,” Ms. Elliott said. “I think that his leadership and his commitment to this organization, which continues to this day, are really a hallmark of who we are as a Jewish home.
“It is a very fitting tribute to him to name this significant part of our future in his honor.”
Mr. Berkowitz is thrilled by the honor. “It was wonderful,” he said. “Such a nice expression by the board and the staff.”
Mr. Berkowitz, who grew up in Newark and graduated from Rutgers and then earned a degree in social work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School, came to the Jewish Home through the legendary George Hantgan, the master social worker and community builder who founded the JCC — now the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, but then the just-plain JCC in Englewood. Mr. Berkowitz worked for Mr. Hantgan and then moved on to become the executive director of the Sister Mary Eugene Foundation, a Bergen County social service and adoption agency. “Then, about four years later, I got a call from George, asking if I was ready to come back to Jewish communal service,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “I asked what was available, and he said ‘a job as the assistant administrator of the Jewish Home in Jersey City.’ I said, ‘That’s interesting.’”
So Mr. Berkowitz went to Jersey City, interviewed with Charlotte Simon, the Jewish Home’s head, and Joe Gross, the president of its board, and after the interview, “Charlotte said to me, ‘I want to retire in four or five years, and I would like to offer you the opportunity to step up.’”
So that’s what happened. “It was a wonderful opportunity,” Mr. Berkowitz said.
Carol Silberstein of Tenafly is the chair of the Jewish Home Family. “The dedication was lovely,” she said. “It was a beautiful day” — in fact it was the first blue-sky white-cloud day after a week of ceaseless drizzle. The speakers were brief and to the point, she said, and Cantor Alan Sokoloff of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, who sang both “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” did a moving and beautiful job, she reported.
“The highlight was the dedication for Chuck Berkowitz,” she said; it was even more powerful because most people there did not know that it was coming. “This is his legacy,” she said. “He started everything.”
The expansion is important, Ms. Silberstein said, because at its heart is the need to make the Jewish Home a real home for its residents. On the one hand, of course it is a home — people live there, and “most of them have pretty much figured out that they are not going back home,” she said. “So we have to make sure that we give them the dignity that really makes it feel like home.
It is not cheap to build the kind of facility the Rockleigh is planning. Its leaders are spearheading a $30 million campaign. They’ve already raised $20 million. “We are still working very hard to get money from foundations and individuals,” Ms. Silberstein said. “It will not be easy. But there is no question that the Center for Rehabilitation Excellence will be done.”
Ary Freilich is a past Rockleigh board president and a member of its board now. “The groundbreaking was pretty perfect,” he said. “It is great to see a well-run event that is a celebration by a well-run organization that is doing real good, that this is attended by a tightly connected and supportive group of people who understand the institution and what it does, and who are ready to help it move into the 21st century.
The way people age is changing, Mr. Freilich said; for one thing, people live longer, and so their bodies fail in ways that they did not use to have time to do. As physical needs change, as mental states vary, the ways the rest of society deals with those needs must change too. Rockleigh is intimately involved with understanding those challenges and meeting them.
“Rockleigh was created by people who said that we should build a place that we would be prepared to live in,” Mr. Freilich said. “Over the last 25 years, we have tried to do that, and we should base all our decisions on that perspective.
“The world does not need a new nursing home. We need a Jewish home that embodies all the values and empathies that are at the heart of the Jewish tradition as regards the elderly. That is the overarching goal of this institution.”