As he finished his meal of soup, pot roast, carrots, a baked potato, a slice of whole wheat bread, and orange sections for dessert, Mel Rosen rose from the table at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange and smiled.
“I come 7.3 miles to here to eat lunch. It’s wonderful,” said the 75-year-old Florham Park resident. “Then I go upstairs to the gym and work out. It keeps my mind and body in good shape. On a scale of one to 10, the food is an eight. It is always good.”
Rosen is one of 50 senior citizens who visits the JCC four times a week for the only kosher nutrition program for the elderly in Essex County, this year marking its 10th anniversary. Funding comes mainly from the Essex County Division on Senior Services, along with a supplementary grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for emergency meals.
The program, which has been directed by Joanne Bramnick since its inception, also serves 30 seniors twice a week at the Jewish Community Housing Corporation’s Village Apartments of the Jewish Federation in South Orange and 40 homebound seniors who receive kosher meals-on-wheels.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to come to our programs,” said Bramnick. “You have to be 60 years of age or over.” To receive home-delivered meals-on-wheels, however, clients must require kosher food and be of low income.
“Some people are not very kosher but they need ‘Jewish style,’” said Sharon Gordon, director of the JCC’s Center for Adult Enrichment. “They don’t eat shellfish and they don’t eat pork, or they don’t mix milk and meat, and because we have a limited number of meals-on-wheels, we try to limit them to the number of people with Jewish dietary needs,” she said.
(Currently, one of the meals-on-wheels recipients is a Muslim man who observes halal, Muslim dietary rules, which are similar to those in Judaism.)
Although most of the program’s funding comes from government sources, Bramnick works to coordinate the food program’s day-to-day operations with other agencies of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
They include the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, which caters the meals; the Daughters of Israel seniors’ home in West Orange, which employs two paid meals-on-wheels drivers; and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, which refers many of its clients to the program. “This is really a community program,” said Bramnick. “We have lots of partners, and that is the reason why it has been successful for 10 years.”
(Another federation agency, Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey — which serves residents of Union County and parts of Somerset County — offers a similar meals-on-wheels program to some 85 homebound elderly people; it is funded by Union County, the federation, and private donations.)
“There has been a huge increase in the need for our meal programs. People are living longer and looking for social outlets as they try to live independently in their own homes.” The FEMA connection came in handy last October in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The agency subsidized kosher shelf-stable meals that were delivered in advance and required neither refrigeration nor heating. They also could be opened without the use of a can opener.
“They are like the meals-ready-to-eat in the army, but hopefully, a little better than that,” Bramnick said.
Bramnick said the 25,000 hot meals served at the West Orange JCC every year are “targeted to please the kosher palate” with what she called “Jewish comfort food.” The most desired item on the menus is stuffed cabbage, followed by baked chicken.
“We try to serve fish at least once a week. We do salad platters with soup in the summer. We do healthy desserts as much as we can, although sometimes there is a request for cake,” she said.
Although the food is strictly kosher, government regulations require that each recipient receive a half-pint carton of milk with each meal. “Some people take it, and some people don’t,” she said. Many of them save it for breakfast the next day. “Many of our people might not be ‘kosher kosher,’ but they would never put a piece of cheese on a hamburger.”
Although there is no cost for the food, Bramnick asks diners for donations of $3 a meal. “But no one is turned away because of their lack of ability to donate,” she added quickly.
At a table outside the dining room, 96-year-old Ruth Bernstein of West Orange sat collecting donations. Like Bramnick, she became involved with the food program since Nov. 3, 2003, the day it began.
Her three daughters, six grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren all approve of her participation.
“It is a wonderful thing,” she said. “I don’t do any cooking and my family knows I have a nutritional meal at lunchtime.”