New Cedars owner says he’s committed to keeping facility’s ‘Jewish character’

The Cedars of Town and Country

By Repps Hudson, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The long-troubled Cedars at the JCA has a new name – the Cedars of Town & Country – and a new owner who vows to restore the complete Jewish character of the long-term care facility.

At the same time, Makhlouf “Mark” Suissa says he wants to appeal to a broader clientele. He also wants to make the 252-bed skilled nursing facility with more than a century of tradition behind it welcoming for elderly men and women of other faiths and backgrounds.

That’s the reason Suissa would not let his picture be taken in connection with a story about the home’s revival under his ownership.

ADVERTISEMENT
JCC Summer Membership Ad


“When they see someone with a yarmulke and a beard here without knowing where they are,” Suissa said in an interview last week, “their perception would be that this is really a kosher home, strictly kosher home, 

and that deters people who don’t want to be kosher, who aren’t Jewish or people who are Jewish but don’t keep kosher.

“This is open for everyone, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, everyone who needs to be in a beautiful facility with good care and good services.”

Suissa, 67, is a small, unassuming man from the Peterson Park area of Chicago’s North Side with a short white beard and a kippah over his short, gray hair. 

He was born in Marrakesh, Morocco, and has lived in the United States for many years. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He said his grandfather was a financial advisor to the royal family of Morocco. He talked last week about why he bought the Cedars at an undisclosed price.

Suissa took ownership March 27 after years of the Cedars being in limbo. The property defaulted on its mortgage seven years ago. Then it was auctioned off to an affiliate of Lehman Brothers. Two years ago, the board could not put together a sound financial plan to stay afloat. Traditions Management has operated the facility for the last two years. 

In 2011, Suissa also took ownership of the financially troubled Jewish Home for the Aged in New Haven, Conn., and is operating it on a for-profit basis. He has changed the name to Advanced Nursing and Rehabilitation Center of New Haven, LLC.

Lisa Niehaus, an administrator who has been at the Cedars about 18 months, said the facility has 193 beds occupied out of 230 skilled bed and 22 residential beds.

That’s a occupancy rate of nearly 77 percent, but Suissa clearly wants to let the St. Louis Jewish community know that the Cedars is under new ownership and is setting a different tone than it had under its previous recent owners.

Niehaus said the Cedars, which is luxurious in its appointments, boasting lavish wood trim and a sylvan setting at 13190 South Outer 40 Road, has 200 full-time and 24 part-time employees.

While many nursing homes may pay minimum wage to a good portion of their staff, Niehaus said a certified nursing assistant starts at $10 an hour and can earn up to $14.50 an hour, plus benefits. Registered nurses earn up to $27 an hour, she said, and there are an average of 18 RNs on duty during the day.

Residents of the Cedars can pay from $7,000 to $10,000 a month for a private room. Some residents may be covered by Medicaid. In those cases, Niehaus said, the resident turns his or her monthly Social Security over to the home, while the remaining costs are covered by Medicaid. Those residents are not allowed by law to have more than $999 total in assets.

Suissa has long owned three other nursing homes in the St. Louis area: Cori Manor in Fenton, Grand Manor and Northview Village, both in St. Louis. 

All three have been regularly inspected by the Missouri Department of Health. With five stars being the best, Grand Manor has a current overall rating of four stars, Cori Manor has a current overall rating of one star and Northview Village, four stars overall.

The Cedars’ current rating is three stars.

Suissa said he puts a lot of emphasis on being a high-quality nursing homeowner. He characterized the violations in Cori Manor, Grand Manor and Northview Village as minor and bureaucratic.

“A lot of the stuff you see is not really serious stuff,” Suissa said.

He said that a successful nursing home requires good management that works with the staff – “not that they are just here for eight hours to get their paycheck and go home. They should be happy to come to work here, even though they are not making big money.”

The Cedars has two chapels for Jewish residents, Orthodox and Reform, as well as a non-denominational chapel, Suissa said.

Asked what he would change about the Cedars, Suissa said he wants to give more personal attention to residents by doing more things for them.

“We don’t want numbers,” he said. “We want to give individual attention to the residents. I want people to feel they are at home. I don’t want them to feel they are in an institution. You have to talk to them, give them respect…They should have a good feeling about their lives. They shouldn’t feel they just have to die.”

Suissa said his approach to operating nursing homes – he also owns homes in Illinois – is to help people while making a living.

He added that he thinks it’s important that Jewish residents can find ways to enjoy their lives with other Jewish residents.

“A Jewish atmosphere is important,” Suissa said. “This fellow says, ‘I grew up in a Jewish home. There are a few other Jewish people. I talk with them. I schmooze with them. We talk about our lives. We talk about our grandparents who were in the war and went through hard times….’ It gives them the feeling of home.”