The joy of eating with friends

The joy of eating with friends

JCC MetroWest’s kosher food program celebrates its 20th year

ON THE COVER:  Chef Jesse Parham, left, and his assistant, Andie Good, stand in the kosher kitchen at the JCC; they create more than 100 meals a day there with homecooked love. (Knox Johnson)
ON THE COVER: Chef Jesse Parham, left, and his assistant, Andie Good, stand in the kosher kitchen at the JCC; they create more than 100 meals a day there with homecooked love. (Knox Johnson)

Chicken paprikash with noodle kugel. Apricot chicken with kasha varnishkes. Chicken leg piccata with parsley garlic rotini.

No, these are not the specials at a trendy new restaurant. These are just a few of the meals that Essex County seniors are enjoying thanks to the JCC MetroWest kosher meals program, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The effort is funded through grants from the Essex County Division of Senior Services, giving seniors access to hot, nutritious, kosher meals through the only program of its kind in the county.

Joanne Bramnick of Livingston is the director of both the Essex County nutrition program and the memory center at the JCC’s William Margulies Center for Adult Enrichment. She went to work at the JCC 20 years ago to set the grants in motion.

“Without a doubt, this has been the most satisfying job I’ve ever had,” she said. The program offers both on-site dining or delivery service to homebound seniors, and Ms. Bramnick feels that it has been a lifesaver to not only the seniors but also the families who care for them.

Knox Johnson is on his way back to the kitchen after working with the volunteers to serve lunch.

“For our home delivery recipients, the meals make it possible for seniors to maintain some independence and also remain in their homes,” she said. “For our seniors, who come to have lunch here at the JCC, that helps alleviate some of the isolation that they may feel with aging. There’s tremendous joy in eating good food with friends. And the food we serve is often Jewish comfort food, meant to appeal to a senior palate, so it evokes memories that everyone likes to discuss. Stuffed cabbage is a hot topic!”

The JCC works with the kitchen at the Jewish Federation Plaza, one of four senior housing complexes that the Jewish Community Housing Corporation owns. Jewish Federation Plaza is across the driveway from the JCC’s West Orange building. The kosher kitchen, run by chef Jesse Parham of East Orange and his assistant, Andie Good of Roselle Park, puts out more than 150 kosher meals a day, between the drop-in senior lunch program and the home delivery of meals to seniors who qualify for them.

Chef Parham, a graduate of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colorado, was preparing Hungarian goulash as we spoke. “When I graduated culinary school, my first job was in a very busy restaurant,” he said. “After a while, I knew it wasn’t for me. I wanted a slower pace.” While the average cook may not consider preparing more than 150 meals by noon to be working slowly, Chef Parham does.

Chef Parham loves his work. “I love to cook and eat,” he said. “But to see the smiles of the people — it’s what I came here to do.”

The food is carefully prepared and then packed for delivery to homebound clients.

Over the last 20 years, the JCC MetroWest kosher meal program has served approximately 500,000 hot kosher meals to seniors in the Essex County community; it now provides meals to more than 1,000 seniors.

Amelia Perlstein, chair of JCC MetroWest board of trustees, is proud of the program. “The Home Delivered Meals program at JCC MetroWest has been an integral support to our community and would not be possible without our very devoted and wonderful staff,” she said. “Throughout the years, this program has served hundreds of people and has provided much needed support to the individuals receiving the food as well as their families.

“What a comfort to the families to know that their loved ones are not only receiving food delivered to their homes or provided at our J as part of our kosher nutrition program for community seniors and Littman center participants, but that it is kosher and allows them to continue this piece of their Jewish traditions.”

The Jonathan and Nancy Littman Memory Center program participants enjoy the hot kosher lunch along with the drop-in seniors. “We bring the love and support of JCC MetroWest to their homes,” Ms. Perlstein said. “This program is key to the J’s mission of strengthening our community and adding meaning to the lives of those we serve to and through shared Jewish experiences.”

Dan Yates, who’s performed on Broadway, had the seniors singing with him after lunch.

The dine-in lunch is served on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, as volunteers bring plates of food to the tables. Entertainment almost always follows after the meal to allow for socializing. “We have singers, everything from folk music, duets, traditional Jewish music, Broadway classics, Rat Pack,” Gina Goldman, director of activities at the Center for Adult Enrichment, said. “Often, performers will bring in keyboards — sometimes you look over and everyone is up dancing!

“We have lectures and movies often after lunch as well. We don’t play bingo or board games,” she added.

After lunch is served to the program participants, the volunteers sit down together for their meal, knowing they’ve done a mitzvah and also enjoying the company of everyone they’ve come to call their JCC family. Having the meals program makes it possible to “spend your day at the J,” as the slogan puts it. Often the seniors will get visits from jitney carriages full of babies from the nursery school being taken for a stroll through the building. Or the children from the early childhood program will come in to chat with the seniors. That multigenerational interaction is another way to combat loneliness that often affects seniors. “You want to live long, but you want to live well,” Ms. Goldman said.

Good nutrition, socialization, mind-stimulating programs, and exercise all are components of healthy aging. But the food delivery program is invaluable for seniors who are homebound. To qualify for the program, you must be 60 or over, an Essex County resident, require kosher food, and be homebound.

Seniors at the JCC’s kosher meal program enjoy the entertainment.

“Usually, I’m contacted by Jewish Family Services or a hospital or rehab center,” Ms. Bramnick said. “Often a person isn’t qualified for this program, but I do help refer them to other available programs. The delivery service has also been so helpful to someone housebound for the short term, for instance after a surgery or an injury.”

The JCC contracts with the Daughters of Israel’s transportation service to deliver approximately 50 warm kosher meals Monday through Friday, with two extra meals included on Friday for Shabbat and the weekend. Two vans cover two routes. The program has never closed, even during covid. When a storm that might make delivery difficult is predicted, the service delivers shelf-stable meals.

Marion Kaslon is 99 and lives on her own in West Orange. Her daughters, Terri Gilbert and Karen Schlam, who both live in Livingston, are grateful for the meal delivery. “When our mom moved from Brooklyn 25 years ago, she loved going to the JCC,” Ms. Gilbert, a recently retired special-education teacher, said. “She was not only a volunteer but also really enjoyed the marvelous lectures and programs. She would eat lunch there and really enjoyed the socialization along with the delicious food.”

Five years ago, after coming home from a hospital stay for pneumonia, Ms. Kaslon’s daughters arranged for the kosher meal delivery to help in the recovery process. “The JCC is really providing a service to the whole family,” Ms Gilbert said. “It was an enormous relief for us to know that mom would be getting that meal every day. Now she wouldn’t need an aide to prepare meals. If we didn’t have this food delivery, she wouldn’t be able to live alone. And not only does she not have to cook, but she also doesn’t have to shop. And after 70 years of cooking, she’s probably tired of it!”

Michelet Brutus, known affectionately as just Brutus, loads his van to deliver hot kosher meals every morning, five days a week.

“We did not miss a meal during the pandemic,” Arbell Noach, the JCC’s director of marketing and communication, said. “Our program never closed. And delivery during covid was vital to so many.”

The delivered meals are generous; they’re meant to be the main meal of the day. Often recipients stretch them into two or more. There’s always a soup or salad, a protein, usually meat or fish, creative side dishes, vegetables, and fresh fruit; and there’s always a dessert, often cookies or a slice of cake. The meals also include milk, because they are government subsidized, and nutrition regulations demand it. But the meals are carefully packed, the milk is segregated from the rest of the food, and there’s no problem with the packages maintaining their certification of kashrut. And the milk often comes in handy for coffee the next morning, recipients say.

Friday’s menu always includes challah and chicken soup to make it a traditional Shabbat meal. The program delivers holiday meals and extra treats for birthdays, like chocolates or special pastries. The suggested $4 donation per meal helps cover those extras. But no one is turned away if they can’t pay.

The community also plays a big part in caring for the seniors through little extras that mean so much. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest creates Passover packages. Students at the Golda Och Academy, right down the road in West Orange, make mishloach manot gifts for Purim. Girl Scout troops have also made small gifts to include in the meals.

A child from a JCC program gives a drawing to an older friend.

“The meals are packed well, and the attention to detail is really beautiful,” Ms. Gilbert said. “And the loveliest man brings her meal every day without fail.” That’s Michelet Brutus of East Orange, who has been delivering the meals for 15 years. “For some people, I am their only visitor,” Mr. Brutus said. “I’m happy to be the same friendly face every day. Whatever happens, I can handle it. Even when people go to the hospital, I will check on them. You really become friendly; you begin to really care about the people.”

The volunteers play a pivotal part on Ms. Bramnick’s team. Claire Scholz of Livingston has been volunteering in the senior meal program for more than 15 years. “Claire runs the show here,” Ms. Bramnick said, with affection and appreciation. She greets everyone at the front door of the dining room, collecting money, and more importantly making sure newcomers are comfortable.

Ms. Scholz has served twice as president of the Margulies Senior Center and volunteered there in almost every capacity. “As people vacated positions, I volunteered to fill them,” she said.

A retired psychologist from the Irvington school system, Ms. Scholz enjoys the socialization the most. “People come from all over Essex County,” she said. “It’s fantastic. Many seniors use this as a convenient meeting place and to enjoy the food.” Ms. Scholz, who also is active in the Livingston AARP chapter, spreads the word of the program everywhere she goes.

Claire Scholz has been volunteering with the Drop-In lunch since it began.

In 2019, Essex County honored Ms. Scholz for her 28 years of teaching and her volunteer work. “I just love what I do,” she said, before jumping back into action as the lunch service was ending. Gathering up the attendee list and donation box, Ms. Scholz prepared to enjoy Asian steak stir fry with the other volunteers.

“The kosher meals program was never positioned as a handout,” Ms. Bramnick said. “Through these grants, we are able to provide an important part of senior life — the nutrition as well as the socialization. We have such fabulous programs at the JCC that it really is an easy sell.

“Eating with your friends is just part of a day at the J!”

For more information on the kosher meals program dine-in or home delivery services, call Joanne Bramnick at (973) 530-3414 or email her at

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