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Facing the Pandemic: B’nai B’rith Housing, Not Just Bricks and Mortar

By Mark D. Olshan, Associate Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International


Mark Olshan, (pictured here) expressed B’nai B’rith’s gratitude to our donors, advocates and particularly to our special family, the building staff, who continue to meet the challenge at our properties every day. Their optimism during this time is distilled in the hope-filled message of our Tucson service coordinators: “We feel blessed to have a job that we love where we can help our residents through this time of great change and turmoil. It’s wonderful to be able to work at B’nai B’rith Manor and Covenant House where we can assist them.”
The coronavirus pandemic is, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and certainly one that has had and will continue to have a lasting impact on our health, economy and very way of life. Here at B’nai B’rith, where I’ve directed the senior housing program for 37 years, we are seeking to ameliorate the pandemic’s impact on the more than 5,000 residents living in more than 4,000 apartments in our 38 senior housing properties in 16 states.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been pervasive. Since March, and for an indefinite period, offices, schools, restaurants, mass transportation, sports, concerts, summer camps and more were closed, curtailed or canceled. There has been unprecedented self-isolation. For months, “eating out” has meant “curbside pick-up” for diners.

So, how does this relate to our affordable senior housing properties? As parts of the country were shutting down, our Center for Senior Services (CSS) worked to ensure that B’nai B’rith facilities met the unprecedented challenges. Regular readers of this column may remember that we often comment that the B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Network is “more than bricks and mortar.” That is, B’nai B’rith housing doesn’t end when the doors open. Rather, it only starts there.  

Whether it’s our annual Housing Conference, Managers and Service Coordinator Training, advocacy on Capitol Hill, Residents’ Leadership Retreat or the myriad of other ways we work with our buildings, our overriding commitment is that we do not quit after we cut a ribbon. That’s when our involvement and hard work truly begin.

In 2020, residents have been sheltering in their apartments, and the building staff have had to adapt to the “new normal.” Staff have had to calm residents and their families and find ways to acquire much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies and food, all while practicing responsible social distancing. If you think it’s difficult in your own household, imagine what it’s like in an apartment complex housing 50 to 250 “higher risk” older adults.

Hannah Rosner, a resident of B’nai B’rith Apartments of Deerfield Beach, Florida, sent a thank-you note to management. “The staff has kept the residents here as safe and healthy as possible,” she wrote. “The effort you have put into cleaning and sanitizing the buildings, as well as the regulations you have implemented are GREATLY appreciated. You have kept us informed, and directed and managed the staff to ensure the best outcome possible … I am very grateful to be living at B’nai B’rith under your leadership.”

Notes like this made us proud to publish “CSS Hometown Heroes” on our website, which acknowledges our staff, facilities managers, housekeeping and volunteers serving on the front lines. For residents, staff posted “messages of hope.”


When residents of B’nai B’rith of Queens lost their local grocery store, our Senior Center staff rallied to obtain donations of food, whose delivery was arranged by New York’s Metropolitan Council. The building’s board and staff reached out to the office of Acting Borough President Sharon Lee, which arranged for the delivery of 200 masks, a precious commodity during this time.
Within days of isolation mandates, CSS staff started thinking of creative ways to support our properties. We started a weekly B’nai B’rith Housing Network Zoom call for management professionals and provided regular updates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC), and Capitol Hill. These Zoom calls let property managers share new ideas, hear success stories and speak directly with their colleagues across the country facing similar challenges.

Jeff Cottingham, the management agent for the Sam J. Stone B’nai B’rith Apartments in Peoria, Illinois, described our Zoom meetings as “invaluable!”

Since the pandemic forced us to cancel our annual in-person meeting of managers and service coordinators, our staff provided remote online training focused on staff and residents’ day-to-day activities in our affordable housing properties. Participants heard from representatives from the American Association of Service Coordinators (AASC), the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), consultants in the field of affordable housing and B’nai B’rith staff. Discussions included suggestions as to how to obtain PPE and cleaning supplies, limiting access to common areas, informing residents, practicing social distancing, mandatory mask policies and networking.  

Our work has included assisting individual properties throughout the crisis. We worked with community partners, including our own B’nai B’rith Center for Community Action (CCA), to ensure that residents received adequate supplies. Managers at our property in Queens, New York, told us that a local grocery store, where many residents were shopping, had to close for an extended period of time. Through CCA we were able to get pallets of food — including eggs, yogurt and nonperishable items — donated for 288 people. “The team at B’nai B’rith International quickly went to work to find donations and a food source for the residents in our building,” said Michael Pierce, the building’s regional property manager. The staff assembled bags to be delivered to the residents’ doors.


Housekeeping staff member Cindy Bloom (left) and Building Engineer John Jones were members of the team that kept residents safe at Amos Towers in Scranton, Pa.


During her visit to our property, Pasadena Interfaith Manor in Pasadena, Texas, on Sept. 12, 2020, Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) delivered a donation of masks for residents and staff to On-site Manager Mike Garcia.
In California,  CSS arranged with the office of U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and other community partners a donation and delivery of face masks, hand sanitizers and other PPE to the B’nai B’rith Golden Years Apartments in North Hollywood.

On Capitol Hill, our advocacy intensified. Congress debated a variety of legislative fixes to the stalled economy, many of which included additional funding for HUD-assisted housing. Not only have we been supportive of these efforts, but we also forcefully fought for certain provisions to be included, such as increasing Wi-Fi capability, which allows residents a better means of staying connected to the outside world.  

We were particularly excited to see our advocacy efforts addressed with the “Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act of 2020” introduced in both the Senate and House respectively by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who also serves as Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Furthermore, it was nice to see our support for the bill noted in Senator Menendez’s press release introducing his legislation. These bills sought financial resources for HUD-assisted senior housing in response to COVID-19 that allow for greater flexibility to hire more staff, acquire PPE, increase service coordination and expand Wi-Fi access.

So, still after all these years as director of the senior housing program here at B’nai B’rith, I passionately believe we continue to provide an invaluable service for our housing network.

In light of what I hope is only a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, I’m proud to say, once again, that B’nai B’rith senior housing is much more than just bricks and mortar.

Mark D. Olshan, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International and director of the organization’s Center for Senior Services

To learn more about the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services, senior housing and to read the Seniority Report,
visit Read more about Hometown Heroes here: