Regarding the bankruptcy and sale of the Covenant at South Hills, I wanted to put in this corrective to Toby Tabachnik’s otherwise excellent article in the July 30 issue of the Chronicle (“Five weeks before auction, two groups remain interested in Covenant purchase”):
1. While it’s true any new ownership will likely detract somewhat from the Jewish character of the Covenant, it is misleading to leave the impression that this change has anything to do with the Lutheran bidder (Concordia). Concordia’s position on this question is the same as the other bidder (Foxcrest). B’nai B’rith and the management of Covenant also agree on how the facility should be run in the future.
Both bidders and the current management favor doing away with the kosher kitchen, on the grounds of the added expense, said to run over $2,000 a year per resident. For the minority of residents who object, kosher catering is promised; the majority accepts it, and probably many welcome it. But this is not what is at issue, since all bidders agree on it.
2. All bidders and management also favor keeping Covenant as an elderly care facility, not turning the residents out on the street. This is not only out of motives of decency; it is a matter of financial common sense (the building would be worth far less, and could take in only a fraction — maybe one-third — of its current rent, if it were converted into ordinary apartments). They are all likely to raise the rent further, although all speak of keeping the increases moderate.
3. Concordia, precisely because it is Lutheran, is likely to preserve the Jewish character of Covenant better than Foxcrest. As a religiously based outfit, Concordia can be expected to have considerable respect for Judaism per se as well as for the Jewish character of Covenant. The Lutheran religion, after all, fully incorporates the Jewish Bible as part of its Testament of God. And it has a post-Holocaust awareness of the evil of anti-Semitism.
Residents of the Covenant are furious that Jewish community leaders are taking a negative attitude toward the Lutherans or Concordia. The article cited unnamed Jewish community leaders as opposing Concordia and spreading suspicions that a Lutheran purchase would compromise Covenant’s Jewish character, as suggested in the issue of the kosher kitchen. As I have indicated, this is a false argument, as every bidder, and the present management itself, favors dropping the kosher kitchen. One resident told me, “The Lutherans are showing a lot more regard for the Jews in the Covenant than are our ‘Jewish community leaders,’ or B’nai B’rith itself.”
Is this a matter of old-fashioned prejudice, but in reverse, this time with (some) Jews against (all) Lutherans? Or a matter of old suspicions and fears, based on a very real memory of the Holocaust, operating de facto as a form of prejudice? Whichever it is, isn’t it important for our Jewish community leaders at this time to put it aside and start acting without prejudice in the true interest of the community?
4. Who would show the greatest regard for the interests of the (mostly Jewish) residents?
On this matter, there seems to be only one opinion among the residents. Every single one that I have asked or spoken with prefers Concordia. They are anxiously hoping –— perhaps the word “praying” would come closer to expressing their attitude —– that Concordia will win and Foxcrest will lose. Not a single one has indicated a preference for Foxcrest.
5. The question mark over Foxcrest goes beyond being non-Jewish, or being less concerned for the residents. It is also a matter that it is a normal business outfit whose guiding criterion is by necessity profit. This isn’t bad per se; but what is bad about the present case is that short-term profit will necessarily be a major motive for it in a post-bankruptcy situation.
This is doubly the case since Foxcrest, unlike Concordia, does not have the cash on hand. Foxcrest would have to take out large loans to be able to purchase Covenant and would accordingly owe substantial interest payments, forcing it to pay attention to short-term profits. This could lead to rapid raises in rents, or dangerous cuts in the health services; and such a turn would create a downward spiral for the institution, leading more people to leave and fewer to move in, causing a second bankruptcy down the road — making everyone go through this nightmare all over again. The sale would solve nothing, it would only make things worse.
This is a strong reason for preferring a large nonprofit such as Concordia, which has the cash, and has run many such facilities, and run them well.
Finally, I should explain why it is I who is writing, not a Covenant resident. The residents face several conflicting legal pressures and have reason to be cautious about saying anything to the press. I have the good fortune that I am not a Covenant resident. I am not faced with the same pressures, nor the same risks. I am free to speak. However, I do share the concerns of the residents: two of them are my parents.
It is my hope that the Jewish community outside the Covenant will not be misled, and will come to understand the real situation about it. The support of the Jewish community for the true interests of the residents is extremely important: important for the residents obviously, and also for the future of the Jewish community itself. The residents need the Jewish community to be on their side. Thus far it has not been. They need B’nai B’rith to be on their side. It has not been. It is here the Jewish community might help. Thus far it seems to be only the Lutherans who are trying to help. Perhaps these notes can do some small part to correct the situation.
(Ira Straus, a Pittsburgh native, currently lives in Arlington, Va.)