Combatting Loneliness, Poverty, and Trauma in the Lives of Holocaust Survivors

April 25, 2022Ellie Rudee and Crystal Hill

Yom HaShoah is also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day and occurs on the 27 th of the month of Nisan. It is a day to commemorate those who perished during the Holocaust and listen to survivors tell their stories. However, as the survivor population ages, many are needing more assistance.

We sat down with two representatives of organizations that help meet the needs of Holocaust survivors in different but equally important ways: Jay Schultz (he/him/his), the founder of Adopt-A-Safta in Israel, and Shelley Rood Wernick (she/her/hers), the managing director of the Jewish Federations of North America's (JFNA's) Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma, based in the United States. Adopt-A-Safta is aimed at alleviating the loneliness that many survivors in Israel face, while the Center for Holocaust Survivor Care is addressing the needs of Holocaust survivors who are impoverished and/or who need more community support as they age.

Tell us about your organization and what it does.

AAS: Adopt-A-Safta is Israel's main nonprofit organization that cares for, innovates with, and thinks about lonely elderly, with a special focus on Holocaust survivors. Working off the "Big Brother/Big Sister model," our young volunteers "adopt" a [survivor] who needs love and attention and visit them weekly. Our goal is to create real family relationships. To quote one of our amazing survivors from Germany, "Adopt-A-Safta has brought springtime to the winter of my life."

Roman and Laura Breitberg display Life Lessons from Holocaust Survivors
Roman and Laura Breitberg display Life Lessons from Holocaust Survivors, a book they helped create through a JFNA-funded program at Jewish Family Service in San Diego.

CHSC : There are physical health programs, programs where we deliver food, educational [programs], mental health support, cognitive health programs, music, and memory programs. Our approach to serving Holocaust survivors is a person-centered, trauma-informed approach, which means taking knowledge of a person's trauma history and integrating that into programs. We've been using this approach with Holocaust survivors, making sure to minimize triggers. [Also], a lot of our support is framed around education, so we might host an education class where people can get together and learn about [a] topic in psychology or mental health. It's framed as a class and survivors are going and hearing from an instructor rather than a therapy support group. It's a softer way of addressing the issue among a population that is very hesitant to admit to needing help.

Why did you start to work to improve the lot of holocaust survivors?

AAS: I founded the organization out of my personal devotion to Holocaust survivors. I am the proud grandchild of survivors Kathe and David Friedman. Upon moving to Israel in 2006, I tracked down a great aunt from my grandfather's Polish shtetl, Csilla Dunkleman, who was living in Haifa. She very quickly became my adopted grandmother in my new adopted home of Israel. I saw how much it brought to her life with my visits, but I was even more struck by how transformative it was for me creating a new family connection, especially being away from my immediate family and friends. Around the same time, I read an article delving into the plight of survivors in Israel, and yet, with all their financial and medical concerns, the article was clear how the number one complaint was simple loneliness. It broke my heart (as it should have) and motivated me to spring to action. I wanted to throw light into the darkness of elder loneliness, and thus Adopt-A-Safta was born.

CHSC: When I started at JFNA, I was working in advocacy. I was one of the lobbyists for older adult services, and we would speak with communities across the country, with Federations and Jewish family service agencies to hear about the needs of older adults in their communities. We started hearing more about needs in the Holocaust survivor program, and specifically funding shortages in their Holocaust survivor programs across the country. In 2015, the government put money into the federal budget for a program [for Holocaust survivors], and congress appropriated that money to the Administration for Community Living. JFNA applied for that money and got our first grant to help Holocaust survivors at the 2.5-million-dollar level. At that point, I switched over [from being a lobbyist] and became director of that program. We [now] have a $5 million federal grant, and [since 2015] have supported grants across 21 states, impacted 31,000 holocaust survivors, and implemented over 400 projects to help Holocaust survivors across the continent.

Tell us more about the challenges facing today's survivors.

AAS: Loneliness is the world's real pandemic. It affects everyone sometimes, but our elderly are the most vulnerable. The Jewish People should be a shining light to the world on how to care for seniors. Our volunteers are typically the first eye on any worsening conditions of their grandparent, and they report to social workers any needs that may arise, such as food, medical equipment, housing issues, etc. It's important to note that loneliness isn't limited to the emotional realm. According to the CDC, senior social isolation is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia. Poor social relationships, characterized as loneliness, are associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Adopt-A-Safta may focus on the emotional well-being of our grandparents in need, but the positive physical elevation of quality and length of life is also tremendous.

CHSC: Many of our clients today are in poverty, [and] there are a host of needs if you're living in poverty. You need housing, utilities, food, medicine, and transportation. You [may] need materials to be translated into Russian, if that's the language that you speak, [and] you need mental health support. Many Holocaust survivors [also] have strained family relationships or other issues that impact their mental health.

How is Adopt-A-Safta and the Center for Holocaust Survivor Care acting to meet these challenges this Yom HaShoah?

AAS: Adopt-A-Safta regularly cares for survivors around national holidays and produces Israel's largest English-language Yom HaShoah memorial ceremony and survivor testimony, hosted annually in Tel Aviv.

Specifically for Yom HaShoah, I always focus on reminding the world that we are still in the presence of this holy generation, and that the Holocaust isn't just about who was lost. It is also a story of inspiration in the lives of the survivors post-war.

CHSC: As it relates to Yom HaShoah, Holocaust survivors, like everyone, need to be seen and heard. They need to know that we see them, we love them, we cherish them, and we are grateful for the contributions that they've made to us. [We are grateful to them] for teaching us their lessons, as it is not easy for a Holocaust survivor to share their story, and to talk about the most horrible moments of their life.

Do your organizations do work outside of their original countries, or have plans to do so?

AAS: We are truly working overtime to try and address the needs of every isolated senior across Israel. But at the same time, we get weekly requests from Jewish communities across the globe to launch there as well. We thankfully won an award from the Shalom Corps/Jewish Agency/Mosaic United to do a beta test of sorts, trying to take the model to scale to cities across the world. It's in process, and anyone interested in supporting our word in Israel or globally, can reach out.

CHSC: JFNA does work outside the United States, namely through our overseas partners: the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). [Both] serve Holocaust survivors in the rest of the world, including Ukraine and places that are experiencing trauma right now.

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