The Jewish Senior Homes That Aren’t (Anymore)
The gold marquee extending over the entrance of the 14-story apartment building says “B’nai B’rith Apartments.” But beyond that, a colored cardboard Star of David on the sliding glass doors is pretty much the only reminder that this building is a senior housing facility built by the Jewish community.
Inside the building, dusty plastic Christmas trees welcome visitors exiting the elevators. In the penthouse library, overlooking the Susquehanna River, a neatly organized pile of prayer books and a cantor’s lectern are all that’s left of what once was a synagogue that held weekly services. The room now hosts Christian prayer meetings.
Known formally as the Abe Cramer B’nai B’rith Apartments, this low-income housing building in downtown Harrisburg is now home to only a handful of Jewish residents. Estimates range from three to seven, of a total of more than 200. These seniors dreamed of spending their golden years shmoozing with friends in the lobby and absorbing Yiddishkeit from the atmosphere around them. But that dream has been supplanted by a new reality, one of alleged drug addicts as neighbors, a deteriorating facility, encounters with anti-Semitism and a sense of being out of place.
“I stay in my apartment and watch old movies. When I come in or go out, I don’t even look to the sides. There’s no one to talk to,” one 90-year-old resident said. “Some Jewish residents died, some left and what came in was bad, very bad,” another added. A third Jewish resident concluded: “This building is drek,” using the Yiddish word for trash. All insisted they not be named, saying they feared retribution from the building management.
Their story is not unique. Harrisburg’s B’nai B’rith senior house tells a tale echoed across the country in towns and neighborhoods where a shifting demographic — often driven by redlining banks and blockbusting realtors playing on racial fears — has meant the departure of most of the area’s Jews, leaving behind only those who can’t afford to relocate. According to Mark Olshan, director of the Center for Senior Services at B’nai B’rith International, the organization’s 42 government-financed buildings located in 27 communities across the United States serve about 8,000 residents. But only a few still have a very high percentage of Jews, he said. Some have no Jews at all.
“In some of our properties we have now more Russians, or more Latinos,” Olshan said. “Residency of our properties evolves all the time, and the onus is on the management to keep the building harmonious.”
For better or worse, that is the nature of the bargain that B’nai B’rith bought into back in 1968. It was then that the organization first decided to draw on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s capital resources to build low-income housing for the elderly and disabled in heavily Jewish communities. Under the National Housing Act of 1959, HUD was authorized to make such funding available to community-based not-for-profits like local B’nai B’rith lodges.
Initially, by locating its sites for these projects in strongly Jewish neighborhoods, B’nai B’rith provided a dignified roof over the heads of elderly Jews on limited incomes in greater numbers than the group could ever have achieved on its own. But as the makeup of these communities changed, the buildings were also obliged to comply with the government’s regulations that applicants be admitted without discrimination as long as their income was low enough to qualify them for public support.
Olshan is unfazed by this. “B’nai B’rith was never in the business of developing housing for Jewish residents,” he said. “We’re in the business of doing a mitzvah for the community, and if Jewish residents can benefit from it, all the better.”
The Harrisburg B’nai B’rith’s construction was completed in 1973, and was the second project in the group’s senior housing program. It was named after the late Abe Cramer, a Pennsylvania real estate businessman and Jewish activist who pioneered B’nai B’rith’s foray into the HUD program to fund its senior housing initiatives.
“B’nai B’rith was the best apartment building in the city at the time,” recalled Brian Humphrey, State Senator Rob Teplitz’s Harrisburg office director. “Now people would rather go to the public housing next door than B’nai B’rith.” Teplitz has taken interest in the problems of the building, which lies within his district.
An old blue scrapbook resting on a shelf in the building’s library tells the story of the building’s heyday.
“I heard that the men used to go down to the lobby in suits and ties,” said a resident as she flipped through the pages. A 1991 article showcased a recent renovation, the last one the building underwent, under the headline, “B’nai B’rith Lobbies Prettied Up.” Some estimate that in the first decades of the building’s operation, almost half the residents were Jewish.
That was then. More recently, years of complaints reached a boiling point on March 23, when residents, management and local police and politicians traded accusations in a heated meeting in the building’s dining room.
“I was friends with Abe Cramer,” a Catholic resident who has been living in the building for almost two decades told the Forward. “He’d be rolling over in his grave if he knew how the place looks now.”
The meeting brought to the surface complaints that have been festering for months and, residents argue, have been largely ignored. It also highlighted how disconnected these residents feel from the JLD Property Management Group, the company that manages the property on B’nai B’rith’s behalf. Many voice fear of payback if they speak out or complain. Living on minimal fixed incomes at best, most of the residents know they have few housing options waiting for them outside the B’nai B’rith building. The management controls their rent and could evict them for any violation.
Representatives of the board say this sense of trepidation, which they see as unwarranted, is why complaints go untreated, since residents refuse to speak out.
“Unfortunately,” said Jeff Cohen, chairman of the B’nai B’rith Apartments board of directors, “residents have been complaining for more than a year but refuse to speak to us out of fear of retaliation.” Meanwhile, he added, the residents’ representatives on the board have never raised any complaints about drug use or other problems in the building.
This fear was noticeable in this reporter’s meetings with the residents. A camera click or an open notepad alarmed them. They moved from the lobby to the dining room, then to an upstairs apartment to talk. “Did you see how they looked at us?” a resident noted, referring to staff members staring from across the room.
On the elevator to visit one of the residents, the doors slid open to reveal a hallway that had seen better days. Two notices were pinned to a cork bulletin board, one listing a schedule of activities, the other warning that “no drugs are allowed” and that random canine searches will be conducted.
“We need security. There’s a real drug problem here,” said Ellie Chapman, who is 82. She lives in a large and tidy apartment, decorated with memorabilia from her world travels: an Israeli shelf with a menorah and small bottles of Sabra liqueur; an Egyptian shelf with mementos from her trip there; and a shelf with items from her homeland, the Netherlands, which she left after World War II. Chapman and her mother, who lived in hiding, were the only family members to survive the Holocaust. Her father was murdered in Auschwitz after being subjected to Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments. When the Jews of Amsterdam were ordered to concentrate in the city’s ghetto, she became acquainted with another Jewish girl there — Anne Frank. “I remember her, she was older then me,” she stated plainly. “She was nice.”
Chapman’s daughter lives in Harrisburg and recommended her mother move into the B’nai B’rith apartments over a decade ago. “She heard it was a Jewish place,” Chapman said.
She recalls Friday night services and holiday parties at the building in years past. But now Chapman spends little time in the public areas. She cited drug addicts in the building as her major concern.
Four residents told the Forward there is at least one neighbor who is known to be doing drugs. One neighbor on his floor said she seals her door at night with blankets to keep out the smoke and the smell. Another reported seeing people wander the hallways at all hours of the night, congregating around this person’s apartment. Several neighbors said they knew of residents who have died in their apartments from drug-related problems.
Suspicion is abundant among B’nai B’rith residents. They speak of taxis dropping off daily doses for the addicts living in the building and of the “smell of meth” seeping from the heating and cooling units. “I get up at 5 in the morning and walk over to the train station for a cup of coffee,” said one resident. “When I come back you see them all over, sleeping in the lobby and sitting in the stairwells.”
The management tells a different story. They say the police have been called but have failed to find any sign of drug activity. “We don’t have evidence that this is going on,” said Kristie Stone, JLD’s on-site service coordinator. “We are aware that one person has been complaining about drugs in one apartment.”
Harrisburg police said that they take the residents’ complaints seriously. “We are aware of the reports of drug activity at the B’nai B’rith senior center and we are aggressively investigating these reports,” the police chief, Thomas Carter, said in a statement to the Forward.
Though envisioned originally as a housing project primarily for seniors, the building’s obligation to also accept qualified low-income disabled people has brought in younger residents. These include individuals with drug problems, ex-prisoners and the previously homeless.
According to the management, all prospective residents must undergo criminal background checks before being approved. But that is all, and this limited selection process may provide a key to understanding much of the frustration felt by Jewish residents.
Despite all the laments about the loss of a Jewish atmosphere, underneath, this is also a battle about class and race. The senior living center is where Jewish retirees who grew up in postwar middle class families, after having worked their entire lives, are sharing the final chapter of their lives with those who never made it to the middle class. The two groups feel they have little in common. A non-Jewish resident, Katherine McIntire, put it in clear terms: “I don’t like my neighbors. They are not the kind of people I want to associate with.”
Olshan, the B’nai B’rith International official, speaks of changing demographics, not only in Harrisburg but in many areas of the country in which B’nai B’rith set up senior housing programs. “Demography tends to change and we need to adapt to that,” he said.
This observation is mostly lost on the few Jewish residents left in the Harrisburg building. They still recall, from either personal experience or from stories passed down, an apartment complex that had a strong Jewish cultural feel to it. The offices are still closed on major Jewish holidays, just as they are on Christmas and New Year’s Day, but many of the traditions that were kept in the building have died as the population changed.
In 2013, the traditional Hanukkah party did not take place. And residents say it’s been years since a sukkah was put up. After complaints, the management did hold a Hanukkah event last year, with a klezmer band and catered food. “It was a good party,” said one Jewish resident.
But with the departure of most Jews from the complex, some say the sensitivity to Jewish needs has disappeared as well. They point to a party that took place a year ago on Yom Kippur, and to the fact that the library room that used to serve as a synagogue is now rented out on Saturdays to an Apostolic Church pastor who holds Bible classes.
Meanwhile, in a corner of the library room, tucked between a cooking stove and a bookshelf, stands a wooden lectern, adorned by a Star of David and a bronze plaque commemorating the Jewish donor behind the gift. During the Saturday Bible studies, the lectern and a pile of Jewish prayer books are covered with a purple cloth.
“We expected life here to be more Jewish,” said one of the residents who complained about the Bible classes held in the synagogue room.
The Jewish residents feel forgotten not only by their own building’s management, but also by the rest of the Harrisburg Jewish community. They receive rare visits from staff of the Jewish Family Services agency, who also bring small gifts for Hanukkah. “One tiny piece of chocolate,” one resident said of the gift, using his index finger and thumb to describe how small it was. “And a dreidel that looks like they got a hundred of them for a nickel,” added another.
Cohen said that not much can be done to make the building feel more Jewish. It is, in the end, a public facility. The Jewish community in Harrisburg, he said, has been shrinking for decades and there are fewer and fewer Jews who meet the criteria for renting an apartment in the building.
B’nai B’rith’s senior housing centers across the country are overseen by local boards that hire management companies to run the facilities. Most board members, who are volunteers, like Cohen, come from the local Jewish community, and most of them view their job as a way to give back to society. They are well aware that their services benefit mainly non-Jews.
But Jewish residents insist their concern is not just the lack of other Jews and the atmosphere that brings. They’ve complained of outright anti-Semitism. One spoke of a verbal altercation with another resident who used anti-Semitic threats and slurs. And all the Jews in the complex are still rattled by an incident that took place a year and a half ago: Someone scribbled in black marker on the elevator wall: “Jews get out.”
Chapman still keeps a small printed photo of the graffiti in her apartment. Jewish residents claim the management did nothing to find the person responsible, even though closed circuit cameras record all those entering and exiting the elevator. Cohen said it was impossible to investigate since the residents refused to provide any information regarding the time the event took place.
A sense of decline is clear throughout the B’nai B’rith Apartments. Though far from being dilapidated, the building is in need of a makeover. “When you walk in that front lobby, what it says to you is filth,” said McIntire, who has lived in the building since 2006.
This winter, a heating unit broke in the apartment of one of the Jewish residents. It took the management six days to fix. During this time, he was offered only a small space heater as a replacement. “I slept in my coat,” the 90-year-old resident said. Jody Dimpsey of JLD disputed this account, saying the man’s room reached 72 degrees and that he felt cold because of his illness.
“This is the worst that we’ve ever seen. We haven’t gotten any similar complaint in four years,” said Humphrey, the aide to Teplitz, the state senator whose interest in their problem gives the residents some hope.
Humphrey has quickly become the residents’ guardian angel. He takes their phone calls in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep because of the alleged drug activity in the halls, and he openly challenged the building’s management during the tense March 23 meeting. Humphrey, an energetic African-American former community activist, even knocked on the door of the person alleged to be a drug addict and warned him to cut it out before the police got to him.
His boss, Teplitz, is the first Democrat to get elected in this district in 75 years. When complaints about the senior apartment building reached him, Teplitz began using his own Jewish network and synagogue connections to reach out to board members.
Teplitz told the Forward the situation at B’nai B’rith Apartments is no different from that of other low-income housing projects, where “they don’t listen to the residents” of the building. “Residents should not be treated any different than someone who lives in a complex that is not low income,” he said.
Still, things could be changing at the B’nai B’rith Apartments.
Whether thanks to external involvement or, as the management and board argue, as part of a previously planned program, security guards were hired recently to patrol the building three nights a week. Funding for around the clock security, Dimpsey explained, was not available. A major renovation is also in the works and is now awaiting a HUD mortgage guarantee.
These measures may not make Harrisburg’s B’nai B’rith senior housing building any more Jewish, but it could improve life for those who are there.
“I look at the building more as a Jewish response to a housing shortage than as a housing program for Jews,” Cohen said. “To be honest,” he added, “we can’t even put a minyan together in this building anymore.”