In its fight against housing discrimination, the Metropolitan Strategy Group usually takes on bigots and predators: apartment managers who treat white applicants better than black ones, lenders who jack up interest rates on the poor.
Then there's the lawsuit against the Jewish nursing home.
In fall 1998, Carmela DiCicco tried to get her 95-year-old Catholic mother into the Montefiore Home in Beachwood. But the nursing home, which admits only Jews and their spouses, turned her away. DiCicco went to Metro Strategy, which complained to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, then sued.
It may be the most ironic lawsuit at Cleveland's federal courthouse. An organization created to protect minorities' right to live where they want is trying to force a century-old Jewish institution to admit Gentiles. And the directors of Montefiore, members of one of history's most persecuted religious minorities, are accused of religious discrimination.
DiCicco and her siblings "desperately wanted [their] mother to live in a well-run nursing home that was close to them, so they could visit her," says fair-housing attorney Ed Kramer. But when Montefiore turned Lena Amantea away for being Catholic, her children cared for her themselves until she died in January 2000.
The accusation that Montefiore discriminated against Amantea seems to unnerve local Jews. Leaders of the Jewish Community Federation and Anti-Defamation League declined comment on the suit. Rabbi Daniel Schur of the Heights Jewish Center, who supervises Montefiore's kosher kitchens, says this isn't a case of discrimination. "It's not an apartment building where people live, and this color lives [here, and] this color not. We're talking about health."
An illness recently sent Schur's son to a hospital. "He's now in Montefiore for rehab. His whole spirit is different. It's extremely therapeutic to be amongst your own."
Montefiore, founded by a Jewish fraternal order in 1882, celebrates only Jewish holidays, observes the Sabbath, offers Holocaust discussions and Torah lessons, and hosts Jewish weddings and funerals.
Montefiore also has a synagogue. That, its directors argue, makes it exempt from fair-housing laws, which include an exception for nonprofit groups connected to a religious organization.
The OCRC agreed. Last year, it refused to order Montefiore to admit Gentiles. And since the federal and state laws are almost the same, the odds favor Montefiore in the pending federal case, too. "We're very confident we're going to win this thing," says Howard Landau, a spokesman for Montefiore who declined further comment.
Metro Strategy may soon give up on its effort to integrate the home. Kramer says the two sides are discussing a settlement which would allow Montefiore to remain all-Jewish if it strengthens its religious ties to clearly comply with the law.
Still, other nursing homes with religious affiliations admit everyone. "Part of our social teaching is to take care of people in need, no matter what," says Margot Klima, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, which runs St. Augustine Manor in Cleveland.
But Reverend Marvin McMickle, civil-rights leader and pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church, sees nothing wrong with Montefiore's all-Jewish policy. "A people who had a history of discrimination have creatively found ways to serve themselves. They couldn't get into hotels, so they got into the hotel business. They couldn't get into a recreational facility, so they started their own facility. I would rather commend them for [that] than badger them for the very same reason."
Discrimination has encouraged Jewish separateness, agrees Peter Haas, professor of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University. Still, he finds Montefiore's policy "a bit surprising" and believes the home should admit Gentiles.
That would be fine with Maxine Gannis, a seven-year resident of Montefiore. Although she's happy to be in a Jewish home, she says if it admitted non-Jews, "It wouldn't matter to me."