Lutheran group purchasing Cedars facility

A view of the Cedars of Town and Country in 2014. Lutheran Senior Services is purchasing the senior care facility.  

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

The Cedars of Town and Country, a senior care center with deep Jewish roots, is changing ownership again with a sale to Lutheran Senior Services. The senior center also will have a new name — its third in about five years — to Mason Pointe, effective Feb. 1.

For some, the sale will be seen as a final chapter for the once-Jewish senior care home. The Cedars was built by the Jewish Center for Aged in 2003 as part of a legacy that began in 1907 with the founding of the Orthodox Jewish Old Folks Home. For a century, the Jewish community provided a non-profit Jewish facility to care for the community’s older adults. However, it has not been operated by the Jewish community for several years and is now a for-profit business.

Lutheran Senior Services (LSS) is purchasing the 252-bed center for $34 million from Cedars Properties LLC.  The owner, Makhlouf (Mark) Suissa, a Jewish nursing home operator from Chicago, said he was selling to Lutheran Senior Services “because of the shared faith-based approach to care and its excellent reputation in senior living.”

John Kotovsky, Lutheran Senior Services president and CEO, in an interview this week sought to assure the Jewish community that it already serves Jews at its other care centers and respects people of all faith traditions.

“We are not a proselytizing, evangelical organization,” Kotovsky said.  “We are servant-hearted, with a specific responsibility of serving older adults. We are asked to love one another as God first loved us. That’s the Judeo-Christian [connection]. We share that.”

Kotovsky said that Lutheran Senior Services would continue to offer kosher meals to its Jewish residents — possibly through Kohn’s Kosher Meat and Deli — and would keep open the kosher dining room, which is also used as a synagogue for religious services.  An ark with three torahs is located there.  But LSS has not yet made decisions about the kosher kitchen or the future role of Rabbi Yaakov Gertzulin, who has worked full-time for 22 years at the JCA and The Cedars.  Gertzulin and LSS are in discussions on how to continue Jewish tradition and meet Jewish residents’ needs.

“We will make sure Jewish residents still will have services and that their religious needs are met,” Kovotsky said.   Services also will be provided for other faith groups, as they are now.

The Cedars has between 30 to 40 Jewish residents out of 160 to 170 overall, and about 10 to 12 eat kosher meals, according to different accounts. The attractive, 14-year-old complex of buildings is located in Town and Country immediately adjacent to the site of the former Jewish Center for the Aged, on the south side of Highway 40 (I-64) west of Mason Road.

Lutheran Senior Services will take over the day after the closing on the property, which is set for Jan. 31.  LSS was motivated to buy the Cedars by its need to vacate property on the Mercy Hospital campus in Creve Coeur where LSS operates a short-stay rehabilitation care center called REACH West County. The 80 patients at REACH and services at the facility will relocate to the Cedars — Mason Pointe — by May 1.  Because REACH is only about three miles away at Conway and Ballas roads, LSS will be able to continue to serve the hospital’s (Mercy’s) post-acute patients in need of rehabilitation services.  

Kotovsky said:  “We look forward to serving the Cedars residents and continuing to serve our residents currently on the Mercy campus at our new location.  The consolidation of services at Mason Pointe brings together both organizations’ traditions and heritages of service to residents and the community.”

LSS intends to spend about $5 million on renovations. 

LSS eventually wants to build independent living apartments on eight acres it is purchasing, so it can offer a full continuum of care from independent living to skilled nursing care at Mason Pointe.

 The Lutheran nonprofit operates eight senior living communities with continuing care,  one stand-alone assisted living center, one stand-alone care center, 10 affordable housing complexes for low-income residents and extensive supportive services, serving about 9,000 people of all faiths overall.  Only about 23 percent of those served in LSS continuing care retirement communities are Lutheran.  One of its senior communities in St. Louis County is Laclede Groves in Webster Groves.


Meeting with residents and families

Kotovsky and Jake Bell, chief operating officer, met for more than two hours with patients and their families Monday night. Kotovsky told the group that he believed most people choose senior centers based on quality care. Of 10 LSS care centers, five have five-star ratings by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, four have four-star ratings and one three stars, he said.

Although Suissa ran the Cedars as a for-profit nursing home, the Lutheran group is nonprofit, owned by more than 100 Lutheran churches from two branches of Lutheran faith, he said. Money doesn’t go to shareholders but is put back into the system.

 Bell said that the current owner has been “struggling” at this site because of the census, with about 70 empty beds.  LSS would increase the resident count by bringing in residents from its rehabilitation center, REACH.

The Cedars presently is licensed for 230 skilled nursing beds and 22 residential care beds. Under LSS, the residential care beds would be changed to assisted living beds, and LSS would hope to have 40 assisted living beds overall.   

The Cedars under Rabbi Gertzulin provides Jewish daily religious services and Shabbat services as well kosher food, a kosher kitchen and kosher dining room and observance of Jewish holidays.   He also pays hospital visits and officiates at funerals of residents and provides counseling to family members and staff.

The Gall Synagogue is available for non-denominational services and the Cedars also has a chapel used primarily by Catholics.

Bell noted that while LSS will display Christian crosses at the facility, Jewish residents will not have crosses in their rooms.

He said LSS was “going to honor Jewish tradition, but we are a Christian organization.” 


Jewish for a century

The Orthodox Jewish Old Folks Home opened in 1907 and in later decades the Jewish community prided itself on the senior care facility it owned, the Jewish Center for Aged. 

In 2003, JCA opened the Cedars at the JCA — a $60 million development — to replace the older JCA building next door.   But JCA struggled with financial difficulties paying for the new facility and defaulted on its mortgage. Lehman Brothers Holdings bought the debt from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2007, and a Lehman affiliate took ownership in 2010 and then sold it to the Cedars Properties LLC in 2012.

The new owner, Suissa, changed the name to the Cedars of Town and Country.

Jewish leaders said they had tried hard to save it as a community institution, but could not overcome the cost of the Cedars complex and other financial issues.

Neither Suissa nor Lutheran Senior Services disclosed terms of the current pending sale. However, financial details were contained in a Fitch Ratings report.  The Missouri Health and Educational Facilities Authority is issuing revenue bonds on behalf of LSS for the purchase and renovation.

Another issue brought up this week was the artwork donated by Jewish community members as gifts to the JCA and The Cedars at the JCA. Alice Handelman, who was director of community relations for the Jewish Center for Aged for 18 years, wants the artwork to be distributed to Jewish institutions, such as Covenant Place, among others.

Hundreds of pieces of art already are in storage for Covenant Place, Handelman said, but some of the most notable works are still hanging at The Cedars. Among them are several works by Israeli artists Yaacov Agam and Yankel Ginzburg, and lithographs by Santa Fe artists Stan Solomon and Julie Anderson. Three Salvador Dali lithographs were also part of the JCA’s art inventory.