Exploring Senior Living Niches: Jewish Retirement Communities

A variety of specialized retirement communities exist throughout the country, serving subsets of the population—such as those of Jewish faith or heritage—in ways that can represent opportunities to owners or management companies looking to tap into niche markets.

There are approximately 100 non-profit Jewish senior living organizations and about 130 Jewish-sponsored or affiliated communities in the U.S., says the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS).

The Jewish population comprises 2.1% of the overall U.S. population, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, meaning that most Jewish people have spent their lives in a culture that’s primarily Christian or secular. Applied to the 78-million-strong boomer population, about 1.64 million are of Jewish heritage.

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As this population ages, many want to return to the traditions of their formative years, says Marlene Heller, marketing director for the non-profit, Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Jewish Home and Care Center Foundation, which has three locations and is the state’s only Jewish senior living corporation.

Those traditions won’t include Christmas trees, Easter bunnies, or Halloween celebrations, she notes, and there won’t be pork, ham, or certain other foods for those who observe kosher, or Kashrut, law.

“If there’s someone living here who’s a Holocaust survivor, we know they may need certain [care], for flashbacks, for example. Those with dementia may see themselves as living in a [concentration] camp. They may see their children being stolen from them again. We know how to handle that, and we understand it.”

Care standards at Jewish communities are generally similar to those in other communities in the number of caregivers and the expectations of residents and family, says Ramsey Jennings, president of The Jennings Group, the management agent for The Carlton.

Operated by non-Jewish management company Insignia Senior Living, the Atlanta-based community is one of only two in the state that adhere to Kashrut guidelines, says Executive Director Jenice Cunningham, and most of its activities and programming are built around Jewish holidays.

However, while Jewish communities often have more positions to be filled than their secular counterparts, staffing costs are only “marginally higher,” Jennings says, and can depend on number of people needed to fill certain roles, such as Kashrut Supervisor, chaplain, or executive director.

In some communities, that might be three separate roles, while in others—such as The Carlton—one person may function as both chaplain and Kashrut Supervisor.

The Carlton counts many Holocaust survivors among its residents, but its biggest niche is probably its kosher food preparation.

The community has two separate kitchens in accordance with kosher guidelines of separating meat products from milk products, and there’s a Kashrut supervisor who oversees all incoming food, as well as food preparation, to certify that it is indeed kosher.

These specialized observances do lead to “substantially higher” food costs, says Jennings, but the community—for now, at least—is priced competitively with other area senior living communities.

The Carlton, like other Jewish-affiliated communities, is open to people of all faiths. Many organizations, including Massachusetts-based Hebrew SeniorLife, which sponsors several senior communities across the state, put a heavy emphasis on creating an inclusive environment for everyone.

While only about 10-15% of residents in Hebrew SeniorLife communities don’t identify as Jewish, they’re still a valued part of the community, says Rabbi Judi Ehrlich, chaplain for two of the organization’s communities.

“There’s a welcoming of anyone who wants to live here, with whatever religious tradition [they have], or [those with] no religious tradition,” she says.

Most of these communities have high occupancy, according to their executive directors, but at this point there’s “probably not a need” to build new Jewish retirement communities, says Don Shulman, AJAS’ CEO and president. The stable occupancy rates and resident composition of both Jews and non-Jews, he says, indicates that demand, while steady, is being met.

Ultimately, like secular communities, those with Jewish affiliations are still based on reputation, care, service, and word of mouth, says Jennings—but that affiliation remains important.

“If you’re not doing a good job operating a community, you’re not going to have high occupancy simply because you’re Jewish,” he says. “However, although we must meet the care and service needs at this community like we do at all communities, this is clearly the first stop of consideration for many of the Jewish faith, because it is Jewish.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit www.alfa.org.

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