Retired B’nai Emunah cantor and Reutlinger resident Henry Drejer (center) with fellow resident Doris Langer at Reutlinger's 2017 Simchat Torah celebration (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Retired Congregation B’nai Emunah cantor and Reutlinger resident Henry Drejer (center) with fellow resident Doris Langer at Reutlinger's 2017 Simchat Torah celebration (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Reutlinger families seek assurances about home’s Jewish character

After the Reutlinger Community announced in March that it planned to affiliate with a nondenominational senior care nonprofit, some family members of residents decided to go public with their concerns over the future of the venerable Jewish elder care facility in Danville.

In particular, they worry about preserving Reutlinger’s Jewish character once Sacramento-based Eskaton Senior Care & Services takes over later this year. Even after several face-to-face meetings and email exchanges with Reutlinger leadership, the families say they still know too little about the breadth of the proposed affiliation.

“Any big transition like this means there are going to be changes,” said Andrea DuBrow, who is part of Reutlinger’s Family Council and whose mother is a resident. “Not knowing what those changes are going to be can cause anxiety, particularly with Reutlinger being this Jewish gem.”

At a May 12 meeting with CEO Jay Zimmer, DuBrow and others on the Family Council got their first direct exposure to language in the agreement when Zimmer read a list of the Jewish values that will be codified, and which had been in the works prior to the council’s requests.

They included on-site religious and spiritual leadership, a full-time staff rabbi, maintenance of the Reutlinger synagogue and Jewish museum, celebration of Shabbat and all Jewish holidays, and kosher meals upon request, all things the families had demanded.

Prior to the meeting, they say they had been frustrated by weeks of a seeming lack of transparency.

More than half of the Family Council — 28 of the 47 members — signed an April 30 letter to Zimmer, Eskaton CEO Todd Murch and others asking how “the Reutlinger Board can ensure that our community needs will be honored in the future.”

In Zimmer’s May 3 reply, he said that “most if not all” of the items related to Jewish life are “protected within the agreement,” although he said he could not share the exact language of the draft agreement because of a nondisclosure agreement.

Another aspect of the affiliation has caused concern among the Family Council members.

As part of the agreement, Reutlinger will dissolve its board, making Eskaton the sole stakeholder in the Reutlinger Community. In one of its last official acts, the Reutlinger board will appoint a new member to the Eskaton board. This person will serve three consecutive three-year terms and have veto power over board decisions affecting Reutlinger. Once those terms end, a soon-to-be-designated Jewish organization will appoint replacements going forward.

The recent meeting helped, but it did not fully satisfy everyone.

“It would be very helpful to know who the designated Jewish organization is and how they were selected, and what connection they have to Reutlinger,” DuBrow said. “Do they know what we’re really about?”

All of us are here for one reason — honoring our parents.

In interviews, Reutlinger and Eskaton executives reaffirmed their commitment to preserving Reutlinger as a Jewish institution in perpetuity. The facility began 60 years ago as the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland and moved to Danville in 1999.

Eskaton “has never balked at any of the [Jewish values] provisions,” said Zimmer, who came aboard in 2015 and plans to retire next year. “They’ve been supportive since Day One. They are already in the mindset that the Jewish values are critical to [our] success.”

Eskaton reported revenue of more than $200 million, according to its 2017-2018 financial statement. It operates assisted-living, palliative-care, short-term rehab and skilled-nursing facilities throughout Northern California.

Zimmer cited Eskaton’s track record of quality care, its access to capital and its pledge to maintain Reutlinger’s Jewish character as the reasons the Reutlinger board chose to affiliate with the nonprofit.

Meanwhile, news broke on April 25 that Eskaton was ordered by a Sacramento jury to pay $42.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages to the family of a woman who died at Eskaton’s Orangevale facility in 2012. According to the Sacramento Bee, the death was due to “routine drugging … with the prescription drug Ativan without her consent,” and that the 77-year-old woman had choked to death while eating.

Murch told J., “It’s a very unusual occurrence for Eskaton. We have conceded and taken responsibility from the outset that seven years ago at one of our assisted-living facilities we made a medication error.”

He added that the judge in the case is reviewing motions to reconsider the jury’s decision and that Eskaton may file an appeal.

Despite misgivings about how Reutlinger has conducted the deal so far, family members said they have a generally favorable impression of Eskaton.

“I had heard great things about Eskaton from people I trust,” said DuBrow. “Of course, it’s unnerving and upsetting to read that latest news story.”

Rabbi Debora Kohn, staff rabbi for 17 years, is confident the pending changes will not diminish Reutlinger’s Jewish character. Rather, she said, Eskaton will bring long-term financial stability, something that is not assured for single-site facilities like Reutlinger.

“All of us are here for one reason — honoring our parents,” she said. “We are here because we believe in what we do. None of us are here to becoming rich. We all feel the commitment. This is a mitzvah, this is part of Jewish values. We take care of our elders.”

Meanwhile, family members say they will continue to press Reutlinger and Eskaton for more information before the ink is dry on the final agreement.

“Our driving force is more transparency, more detail, more communication,” said Rich Kreisman, whose mother is a resident. “Families on the Family Council are very eager to maintain the long-term financial health and well-being of Reutlinger. After all, this is our loved ones’ home, and it may one day be our own home.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.