There is a large cross on the sign at the driveway on Bower Hill Road leading to Concordia of the South Hills, a senior retirement community in Mt. Lebanon. The cross is part of the logo of Concordia Lutheran Ministries, which has owned the facility since 2009.
But inside Concordia, which was formerly known as The Covenant at South Hills — and built by B’nai B’rith — the doorposts of many individual apartments are still adorned by mezuzahs.
For many Jewish residents of Concordia, who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to live at what they thought would be a facility with a decidedly Jewish character, some things have changed in the last six years.
But aside from the elimination of kosher food, Jewishly speaking, those changes are mostly for the better.
“I would be more happy with kashrut,” said Marilyn Charap who has been at the facility since it opened under the auspices of B’nai B’rith in 2002. “But I can’t complain. They [the Lutheran Ministries] do as much as they can.”
The amount of Jewish programming has not decreased since the facility changed hands, according to Charap.
“I don’t think a thing has changed,” she said. “In fact, [the Lutheran Ministries] are more interested [in programming] than B’nai B’rith was.”
Concordia consists of 126 independent living apartments, 48 assisted living units, 12 memory-support beds and 46 skilled nursing beds. The project was B’nai B’rith’s first foray into the private senior housing market. After seven years of mismanagement, B’nai B’rith filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and the facility, which cost the Jewish organization $60 million to build, was purchased by Concordia for $15 million at a court-ordered auction.
Under the terms of Concordia’s purchase agreement, it was not required to refund the residents’ deposits — part of their original contract with B’nai B’rith — although a class action lawsuit filed by the residents against B’nai B’rith allowed them to recover a small portion of their investments. Residents were left with substantial and unexpected losses but were allowed to stay in their homes.
“You have to understand that when this was Covenant, and run by B’nai B’rith, they actually had no major input into our operation,” said Maury Deul, who has lived at the facility since it opened 14 years ago and who served as the president of the Covenant’s Residents’ Council during the time of the bankruptcy proceedings. “You might say we were like tenant farmers to them. They were remote. They even hired an outside contractor to run Covenant who didn’t have any authority, but everything had to go through her.
“From the very beginning, the management of B’nai B’rith was inadequate,” Deul continued. “And whenever they had a role to play, they were incompetent. There were people on the board who didn’t know anything about the operations here. There was one board member who was surprised to hear this place was kosher.”
Since Concordia has assumed ownership of the facility, its overall management has improved, according to Deul.
“B’nai B’rith never had a full meeting of the [Covenant’s] board of directors here in Pittsburgh,” Deul said. “In contrast, when Concordia took over, there was immediate representation of the board of directors, with residents on the board.”
Jewishly speaking, not much has changed, according to Deul. Although there is no longer kosher food at the facility, even when the facility was under the auspices of B’nai B’rith, the food was not strictly kosher, Deul said, as there was no full-time mashgiach on the premises, and there was only one kitchen for the preparation of both dairy and meat meals.
But kashrut always has been an issue for only a small minority of families living at the facility, he said, and its absence does not affect too many residents.
“Concordia’s management has not really concerned itself with issues of kashrut,” he said. “It gradually faded away, and it’s no longer a factor.”
There are currently 156 residents residing in the independent living apartments at Concordia; 39 of those residents are Jewish. While the number of Jews at the facility has stayed relatively stable, the percentage of Jews has decreased because under B’nai B’rith, many of the units were empty.
Still, despite Jews comprising only about 25 percent of the population at the facility these days, they are nonetheless able to find a Jewish community within its walls.
Ina Silver, who has directed resident activities at the facility since it was under the auspices of B’nai B’rith, serves as Concordia’s director of community life. Silver helps ensure that Jewish activities continue, Deul said. Those activities include a Passover seder and bimonthly Friday evening Shabbat services that are led by Melinda Freed from nearby Temple Emanuel of South Hills. The facility also hosts a Jewish holiday-themed education program led by Batya Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills; a Jewish current events conversation several times a year; community Chanukah candle lighting; a Purim Megillah reading on site; and an annual poetry and tea forum presented by Temple Emanuel.
Concordia also provides shiva accommodations, and scheduled trips to Temple Emanuel, Beth El Congregation and Chabad of the South Hills for various events.
While there are no High Holiday services offered at the facility, transportation is provided to the South Hills congregations.
Lucy Katz, who moved to Concordia about a year ago, has arranged meetings of her Yiddish club at the facility, she said, and finds the administration to be accommodating in allowing residents to initiate activities on the premises.
Katz, who still keeps kosher, has become accustomed to simply avoiding the food that contains meat and ordering dairy meals, which are available most nights in the dining room, she said.
“I’d be happier with a more available menu,” Katz said, “but there are not many other people who use the dining room with these [kashrut] restrictions.”
Despite being under the auspices of the Lutheran Ministries, Deul said he is comfortable as a Jew living at Concordia.
“I don’t feel I have lost anything since B’nai B’rith is gone,” he said. “I am absolutely happy here.”
In the last several months, said Silver, 10 out of 26 new residents moving into Concordia have been Jewish.
“There has been a bit of a resurgence,” she said.
Gary Bassin, and his wife Darlene, moved to Concordia almost a year ago. The Jewish aspects of the facility factored into the couple’s decision to join the Concordia community, he said.
“That was definitely a part of it,” he said. “And we knew several people who were living here.”
Bassin feels at home at Concordia, he said, notwithstanding its Christian ownership.
“We’ve met so many people here,” he said. “There is a big mix, really, and the population here is very friendly.”
Residents of different faiths often join together for various activities, said Silver, adding that the word “Concordia” comes from the Latin root “concord” meaning “harmony.”
“I do feel the harmony here,” Bassin said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.