Kosher Lunch Takes A Punch


One of two kosher lunch programs fighting to keep its doors open has won a reprieve, organizers and a city councilman told The Jewish Week Monday.

The city-funded Ocean Parkway Senior Center, which serves about 100 people, will share its current space with a new program for disabled seniors that will receive federal Medicaid dollars. Both will be housed at a building owned by Ahi Ezer Housing Development Fund Corp., a nonprofit affiliated with a Sephardic congregation in Midwood.

Last month the organization served the senior center, run by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, with an eviction notice to make way for the new Social Adult Day Care program. But negotiations between the two organizations and mediation by Councilman Domenic Recchia Jr., resulted in a compromise.

“The Ocean Parkway Senior Center is a home away from home for many of Brooklyn’s seniors providing critical services and hundreds of meals on a daily basis to those who need it most,” said Recchia, a Democrat who represents parts of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, in a statement. “Its closure would have devastated our community and those whose lives it touches. That’s why this announcement is such an enormous relief and why it was so important that we fight to ensure that this center remain open to the community.”

Rabbi Moshe Wiener, director of the JCC, said Ahi Ezer “agreed to restructure the [new] program as an afternoon and dinner program with very minimal overlapping with our senior center program.” After breakfast and lunch, senior center activities will move to another part of the building, he said.

The city’s Department for the Aging also participated in the discussions.

Eliot Harari, who is charge of the housing program at Ahi Ezer, deferred comment to Rabbi Wiener.

Still up in the air is the status of several dozen seniors who meet daily at Club 76 on the Upper West Side for a kosher lunch, companionship, help with services, and entertainment and exercise programs.

Among them is Ruth Shapiro, who moved to the Upper West Side 55 years ago, when her family needed a bigger place than their Lower East Side apartment.

Today, she’s alone and about to turn 90.

“This is my home away from home,” said Shapiro on a recent Wednesday afternoon, after finishing her beef sausage, vegetables and couscous. “I’ve been coming here for 10 years, since my husband passed away.”

The Jewish Week reported online last week that both programs were facing closure because of similar, non-budgetary reasons.

On average, Club 76, funded mostly by New York’s Department for the Aging with help from the Jewish Association of Services for the Aging (JASA), feeds between 40 and 75 seniors daily. It also provides exercise, entertainment and benefits assistance in a rented ballroom at the West Side Institutional Synagogue on West 76th Street. It’s the only kosher senior lunch program between the Lower East Side and Washington Heights, organizers say.

But come June 30, the 25-year-old program is set to shut down because its longstanding contract with the city was not renewed. DFTA decided to fund another area program a few blocks away targeting lower-income seniors in public housing.

Councilwoman Gale Brewer has already used her fading political capital — term limits force her out at year’s end — to win the center a reprieve until June. DFTA says it may not be able to revisit its contract allocation process until as far away as six years.

The seniors at Club 76 aren’t wealthy, said Stuart Lahn, founder of a group that is fighting to keep the center open. Most are on fixed incomes and probably couldn’t afford the area today, but have been allowed to remain because of the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE), Lahn said.

“When we try to go to a show, if there’s free tickets people come,” said Lahn. “If it’s $10, no one will come.”

There is no fee for participation in Club 76, though proof of being over 60 is required for subsidized lunches, prepared by Mauzone Caterers, for which a $2 suggested donation is collected. (Non-seniors can eat for $3.) The oldest member recently turned 105. Most are in their 80s.

The center’s budget is about $500,000, with most of that going to rent and food and the rest split between a few staff members. The city portion was over $400,000, with the rest from JASA.

JASA’s chief services officer, Leah Ferster, said the agency was reaching out to other city councilmembers and charitable foundations to try to secure funding for Club 76.

“It’s a tall order,” she said. “But we’re very optimistic that there will be funding available to continue the program.”

Most budget years, existing contracts for services with senior centers are renewed, but periodically the city issues a request for proposals to determine if services can be provided more efficiently.

“Another agency scored higher than they did when ranked by an independent panel,” said DFTA Deputy Commissioner Caryn Resnick of the Club 76 contract. “Unfortunately they didn’t win.”

As the city’s elderly population increases, the number of centers looking after seniors’ welfare has been shrinking, said Bobbie Sackman, executive director of the Council of Senior Centers and Services.

“Some have consolidated, some have been closed because of budget cuts,” she said. “There are about 250 now, where at one point it was over 300. We are concerned that there are a lot of centers around the city that seniors can’t access in neighborhoods that are difficult to get to. Sometimes they consolidate centers a couple of blocks from each other, but if [it’s far] and they can’t get there safely, we’re definitely concerned.”

Tzipporah Schlesinger said she takes the subway to Club 76 from 119th Street. But many other club members are in wheelchairs or have poor eyesight and are taken there by home care attendants.

Glenn Richter, a retired housing authority official and former activist for Soviet Jewry who comes to Club 76 more as an advocate for its members than a client, said keeping it open makes financial sense for the city.

“It costs about $2,500 per person per year,” he said while eating lunch last week. “That’s a hell of a lot cheaper than the person going to a nursing home or an emergency room because no one is caring for them. It’s a social investment.”