Near the End

Jewish Light Editorial

Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

— The Fifth Commandment; Exodus 20:12


If the previous sale of the Cedars to a private owner represented at least a technical knockout, the recent disposition to Lutheran Senior Services is perhaps all but the final blow.  What lessons its history provides to the community is another story.

The new leadership of the facility, which will be known next month as Mason Pointe, has offered welcome assurances that the spiritual and other needs of Jewish residents will be fully honored.  No Christian symbols will be placed in any rooms if the residents object, and the dietary needs of those who keep kosher will continue to be respected. While the Gall Synagogue at the Cedars will apparently continue to be available for Jewish religious services. It has not been determined if the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Yaakov Gertzulin, will be retained at the facility.    

It has been a long and winding road for the Cedars and its predecessor organization, the Jewish Center for Aged (JCA), which had roots in the St. Louis Jewish community going back to 1885, when the then mostly Reform Jews of the city organized the Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites. Later, in 1907, the Orthodox Jewish Old Folks Home was established.

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The two nursing homes merged in 1940 as the Jewish Center for Aged, operating for many decades in North St. Louis before moving to 13190 South Outer 40 Road.

The JCA was founded to fulfill the ancient Jewish commitment to “honor our fathers and our mothers,” to provide an affordable facility for the Jewish elderly that would be warm and welcoming and accommodate the religious and cultural needs of its residents. That same commitment was embodied in the initial mission statements of the JCA, to make sure that the facility would be open to all Jews, including indigents who could not otherwise afford the costs of a nursing home.

Over the years, however, it became increasingly clear that the small percentage of Jewish residents who could afford to pay their way privately was exceeded by Medicaid patients who were not in a position to pay the expensive fees to reside at the JCA. Serious financial shortfalls ensued as a result.

The JCA leadership ultimately decided on a major capital improvement for the facility to attract more residents and to draw in more private pay families to offset the deficits.

The result was the $60 million expansion and the construction of the state-of-the-art Cedars at the JCA, which opened in 2003.

This development was not altogether welcomed by the community, to say the least.  A firestorm of controversy erupted, with families of Jewish residents, joined by rabbis of all streams of Judaism and Jews United for Justice, loudly objecting to the new arrangement. Many called it a betrayal of the original commitment to care for all Jewish aged who required such services.

Sadly, despite the strong efforts of Jewish leaders, the new model after time didn’t provide a satisfactory solution to the community needs or the bottom line. After a default on its mortgage, the Cedars was acquired by Lehman Brothers Holdings, and was eventually sold to Cedars Properties LLC in 2012.

We laud the new owners, who are under no obligation beyond good faith and market savvy, in keeping elements that make the facility attractive to Jewish occupants. But coming years may offer little traction in retaining the remnants of what once was an essential Jewish community institution.

So what›s the lesson? To be sure, there are myriad facilities that provide services that overlap with those of the Cedars, and some of those specifically market to our Jewish community, through either the Jewish Light or other sources. 

The more important and instructive lasting memory of JCA and the Cedars should instead be this:  It’s our collective responsibility to remember why the agency was created and what its longtime purpose was in assisting the most needy Jewish St. Louisans. We are at our best as a community when we can ensure that those who have the greatest needs are the ones to whom we devote the most attention and focus.

Recalling that proud history, rather than dwelling on the facility’s demise as a Jewish institution, will guide us well as we envision how to respectfully and ably serve those Jews who most need to be served.