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Closing of Senior Center Marks End of an Era

April 27, 2011 By:
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The facade of the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia Photos by Greg Bezanis

With the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia slated to close -- possibly as early as June 30 -- Jewish communal officials are working to ensure that the needs of a frail, low-income population will continue to be met.

The center currently services approximately 450 individuals who depend on the facility for a wide range of services, including a place to meet with podiatrists and mental-health professionals, a way to get hot kosher meals or a spot to find a friendly game of pool or cards.

While some key details are still being worked out, the general idea is to have three non-Jewish senior centers nearby, as well as the Klein JCC in the Northeast, which runs the Stiffel, fill the void that will be left by the Stiffel closing.

Plans are underway, meanwhile, to have social workers meet with all those serviced by Stiffel to help determine their individual needs.

Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which owns the Stiffel building and is involved in the process, said: "We don't want any seniors to fall between the cracks. We'll do what's necessary to make sure that everything that can be done is being done -- and more."

"It is important," he continued, "that we feel comfortable that plans are made for each and every one," especially those who require specific needs, such as kosher meals and Jewish programming.

The decision to close Stiffel was made by the board of the Klein JCC in Northeast Philadelphia, which oversees the much smaller Stiffel center. The Klein board voted on April 12.

'Not an Easy Decision'

Officials at Klein JCC and Federation have pointed to two overarching reasons behind the decision.

One is demographics. South Philadelphia, a Jewish hub in the years before World War II, now has a negligible Jewish population. Of the 450 people served by the center, only an estimated 150 are Jewish and, of those, only about 50 live in the immediate neighborhood, said several officials involved with the facility. Many of the others grew up in the area, but now live in Center City, Northeast Philadelphia or other neighborhoods.

The other major factor is, of course, economics.

The center is running at a $200,000 annual deficit and currently needs about $400,000 in building repairs to continue to function, according to several sources.

One Klein JCC board member, who asked not to be identified, said the vote was taken with a heavy heart, but members were confident that the seniors would be well cared for in other facilities.

Stu Coren, a spokesman for Klein JCC, said: "The Stiffel has lost a considerable amount of money, and it's projected to continue to lose. It's a financial thing. It was not an easy decision to come to."

Andre Krug, director of the Klein, did not respond to a request for an interview.

The South Philadelphia site first opened as a Jewish educational center in 1928.

By the 1970s, the Jewish presence in South Philly had both declined and aged, and the building became a senior center.

In the wake of a 1985 fire, the building was restored and renamed the Jacob and Esther Stiffel Senior Center. By then, it had already become part of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.

Stiffel's operating budget is roughly $400,000 a year, according to site director Susan Hoffman. About half of those funds come from the nonprofit Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, which is essentially passing on federal and state dollars designated for senior programs. Much of the rest comes from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia as part of its allocation to senior programs at Klein JCC and the Stiffel center.

According to officials at Federation, talks of closing down the senior center date back to the late 1970s.

"There is a degree of inevitability there," said Ernest Kahn, a senior Federation official who two years ago oversaw the breakup of the organization known as the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia.

That left the individual JCCs to fend for themselves financially, with the understanding that Stiffel would be administered by Klein JCC, which is the largest senior center in Philadelphia, serving 600 to 700 people a day, mostly Jews.

At first, it wasn't clear that the Klein JCC -- which serves primarily middle- and lower-income residents of the area, including seniors and immigrant families from the former Soviet Union and Israel -- would make it on its own.

But in the past year, Stephen B. Klein, the son of Raymond and Miriam Klein -- for whom the building is named -- helped raise $400,000 for the entity. Another gala event raised $300,000.

According to Coren, board members felt that the Klein JCC could be on secure financial footing if it was no longer responsible for the Stiffel. Substantive talks to close the site began last summer, said several sources.

At the Stiffel center itself, news of the closing has evoked a range of reactions, from denial to resigned acceptance, according to Hoffman.

Seniors there have formed two lay committees: One is focusing on helping seniors transition to the closing, the other is looking at ways to possibly keep the center open.

Officials have said that it would take a miraculous donation in the range of $800,000 to do that. One Stiffel senior, Harry Azoff, collected $90 and plans to buy lottery tickets in the hopes of coming up with enough cash.

'They're Grieving Now'

Hoffman pointed out that many of the seniors grew up going to summer camp and dances in the building, and maintain a sentimental attachment beyond the services they receive.

"They are grieving right now. It's a process," she said.

To help in that regard, Federation and Jewish Family and Children's Service are providing grief counselors to meet with Stiffel participants.

A May 6 meeting is slated at the Stiffel center where those interested will receive a full briefing about the closing and the options that will be open to them.

Holly Lang, senior vice president at PCA, said plans are not finalized and officials at PCA, Federation and Klein JCC are eager to hear seniors' concerns.

Allen Glicksman, director of research at PCA, said that despite the steps being taken by his agency, Klein JCC and Federation, the transition needs to be carefully carried out.

"I would be concerned about the closing of any service when there is a frail population," he said.

Schwartz said that the June 30 closing date was not written in stone.

He said the first priority was to ensure that plans are in place to provide for the seniors' needs.

"The time deadline is less important than what happens to the seniors," he said, noting that Federation would likely have to provide some additional financial support to keep the center open beyond June 30.

A day after the news broke, the Friday afternoon pre-Shabbat meal -- which features the sounds of the Stiffel Swingers band and is usually quite festive -- was somewhat subdued, with the closing seemingly the conversation piece at every table.

Azoff stood and urged everyone to try to keep the center open.

"We love this building, as old as it is. We cannot just let this pass by," the 87-year-old South Philly resident said after he sat back down at his table to finish his kosher-for-Passover lunch. "The camaraderie here is unbelievable. If the center will close, I don't know what I will do."

Lenore Freedman, a Stiffel regular in her 70s, said that from now on, she'll probably take the free transit and schlep to the Klein JCC. "I love it here. When I saw the news, my heart broke," she said. "But then, I thought, 'You've got to be realistic. What else can they do?' Thank God we have an option."

Several of the seniors interviewed said that they simply feel more comfortable at Stiffel than at other facilities.

"Klein is not like this," Connie Felzer, who is also in her 70s, said, referring to the much-larger program in the Northeast. "This place is smaller and more haimish. It's sad."

Jewish Exponent executive editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this story.

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