GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP—It’s common for parents to brag about their children. They are proud of their son or daughter’s grades, achievements, jobs and families.
Caren Bernstein’s parents are certainly proud of her, but she said it’s more common for her and her brother to be bragging about their parents, Shirley and Howard Bernstein, of Egg Harbor Township, for the legacy their family has built in South Jersey.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Shirley’s grandfather and a group of local Jewish businessmen started a charity organization to shelter and feed the homeless in Atlantic City. They soon focused on the aging population and developed a community that would evolve 100 years later into today’s Simon and Sylvia Zisman Seashore Gardens Living Center.
“There’s a lot of deep roots and sand in your shoes,” Shirley said. “It’s been a legacy and we’ve been able to watch it grow. It’s always been a big part of our lives.”
Seashore Gardens is a nonprofit long and short-term assisted living center that was founded in Jewish culture. It has 165 residents, staff members belonging to three generations of family and a large foundation board, some of whom have been with the organization for more than 40 years.
Benjamin E. Labov, Shirley’s grandfather, was part of a group of men who recognized the need to take care of the elderly population during a time before Medicare and Social Security benefits. In 1916, the men established the Hebrew Sheltering Home of Atlantic City, which quickly became the Hebrew Old Age Home, on Columbia Place.
Shirley said the men probably never thought how much the nonprofit organization would grow or how it would one day leave its roots in Atlantic City and move to the mainland where it could spread out over 20 acres in Galloway.
“It started as a sort of boarding house, but as the population started to age, people were living longer and getting sicker,” Shirley said. “Nobody thought that it would move out of Atlantic City, but they needed to expand and there was no room after the casinos were built.”
Over the years, the old age home lived in three locations throughout Atlantic City, moving to Georgia Avenue and then to the Lower Chelsea neighborhood on Atlantic Avenue. It was at this last location that the organization took the name Seashore Gardens.
Marty Klein moved from Philadelphia and was teaching special education in Atlantic City in the 1970s. He also happened to live right across from Seashore Gardens on Atlantic Avenue.
Klein, now the living center’s president and CEO, started to think about leaving teaching and going into something else. The center was looking for an assistant at the time and Klein decided to make a career change.
More than 40 years later, he hasn’t looked back.
“You worked five and a half days, every week of the year,” he said. “When I eventually became executive director, some board members weren’t sure if such a young guy could run the center. I was walking on egg shells for a while.”
Klein, foundation board members including the Bernsteins, and current executive director Janice Cambron all played roles in moving the organization off the island and into its current location, a $30 million investment, in 2002.
It might have been an end to the Atlantic City era, but it was a new chapter in the living center’s history.
“It started as a Jewish home, and now we take all denominations,” Klein said. “About 60 percent are Jewish, but we have Catholics, too, and people of all different nationalities. There’s so much activity here, it’s a community environment and it’s open to everyone to participate.”
At the main entrance to the living center, there is a large fountain of water on a stone pathway. Just past the lobby inside, photographs, framed artifacts and newspaper ads decorate a hallway wall, taking visitors through Seashore Garden’s history.
A public space in the center of the main building pays homage to the living center’s original home. A mural of the Atlantic City beach and ocean is painted on one wall, boardwalk benches and street lamps make it all too real. Jimmy’s Ice Cream and Boardwalk Cafe serve as places to get Kosher meals and snacks.
Since moving to its current location, Seashore Gardens has added a nursing facility, an Alzheimer’s neighborhood, housing for people with special and mental needs, and an independent living building.
On a recent Wednesday, teen volunteers put on a mini talent show for the residents in the main space. Everyone clapped, sang along to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and ate cake.
“We’ve gone from a little house which maybe had 10 people in it to now having nursing, assisted living housing, home health care,” Cambron said. “We want you to come see our home and enjoy us, our boardwalk and everything we have. It’s all of Atlantic City we brought with us from our heritage.”