NEW YORK (JTA) — It sounded like the height of absurdity — the state of New York forcing a Jewish nursing home to serve pork to its residents.
But that is exactly what happened at The Jewish Home and Hospital for Aged in the Bronx.
In his State of the State address this month, New York Gov. George Pataki disclosed the incident as an example of bureaucracy gone hog wild.
"I could not make this stuff up," Pataki said, getting a few laughs from the audience. "It's ridiculous. It must stop, and it will."
It all started April 12, 1994, when a state health department inspector interviewed 21 Jewish Home residents.
Six of them had said they would like pork to be served at some of the meals but that they were denied that right.
Although the health inspector found that the nursing home did have its no pork or shellfish policy in writing, the facility was cited for violating residents' rights.
The nursing home offered to correct the infraction by stipulating its dietary policies on its preadmission form.
Although it is not a kosher facility, it follows a "Reform format" that prohibits serving pork and shellfish products, said Kenneth Sherman, executive vice president of the Jewish Home.
At the time, the facility had 816 residents, 79 percent of whom were Jewish. Sherman said he assumed those who wanted pork products were not Jewish.
But city health department officials found the Jewish Home's response "unacceptable."
They demanded that the facility prepare the pork and shellfish products in its kitchen and serve them to residents.
That triggered an angry letter from the nursing home's president and CEO, Harvey Finkelstein, to then-Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Chassin.
"As absurd and insulting as it appears, the New York State Department of Health is requiring [us] and some other Jewish nursing homes in the New York City area to serve pork products and has threatened to decertify the facility from Medic-aid/Medicare participation," he said in the letter.
Finkelstein added that the health department's regional office was insisting that being served pork products was a right of the few non-Jewish residents who wished to eat pork.
"This would be contrary to our tradition and offensive to the majority of our residents and their families," he said.
Sheldon Goldberg, president of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, also weighed in on the issue.
In a letter to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, Goldberg said that in addition to putting its dietary laws in writing, the nursing home offered to take residents to restaurants if they wished to eat pork and shellfish, and to even bring in those products, serving them outside of the dining room.
"I suggest that this remedy should also be sufficient to enable the Jewish Home to comply with both civil and religious laws," he wrote.
Officials of both the state's health department and the governor's office answered those letters, saying that the state "recognizes Jewish nursing facilities and does not require these facilities to prepare pork products."
They added that the remedial actions the nursing home proposed were acceptable.
But resolution of the matter was as slow as a pig in a poke.
Brian Backstrom, manager of regulatory policies and operations at the state Office of Regulatory Reform, said it took "five months of hassling" before state officials overruled its regional office.
Sherman acknowledged that the matter was resolved only after the facility appealed to the governor's office and the health commissioner.
"Once this issue was brought to a level where people were thinking clearly," he added, "it was resolved satisfactorily."
In the end, Pataki thinks that the whole affair is as messy as a pig sty.
Of The Jewish Home and Hospital for Aged, he said, "It hadn't served pork for 125 years — it's a Jewish nursing home."