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Los Angeles Community to Examine Plight of Poverty-Stricken Holocaust Survivors

Los Angeles Community to Examine Plight of Poverty-Stricken Holocaust Survivors

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Generations Connect, one of six organizations that will participate in an L.A. conference on indigent Holocaust survivors, and the New York-based iVolunteer pair volunteers with survivors for one-on-one social interaction. (File Photo)
Generations Connect, one of six organizations that will participate in an L.A. conference on indigent Holocaust survivors, and the New York-based iVolunteer pair volunteers with survivors for one-on-one social interaction. (File Photo)

Jewish communal organizations will examine the continuing plight of indigent survivors of World War II during a meeting this week at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

According to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Mendel Cohen, whose Generations Connect organization provides social interaction for Holocaust survivors in need, the forum comes as part of a continued response to a 2007 exposé in The Jewish Journal that concluded between a quarter and a third of L.A.’s survivors live in poverty.

Chai Cohen, who founded the program together with her husband, said that in addition to monetary assistance, such survivors crave the kind of one-on-one interaction that a team of 20 volunteers with Generations Connect provide.

“You can really see a change in survivors from the visitation experience,” asserted Cohen, who also teaches Holocaust studies at a local school. “Some volunteers are the only human contact that survivors have besides going to the doctor. Having such social interactions on a consistent basis is very special and important for them.”

Other participating organizations of the May 7 conference include Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Bikur Cholim, Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Second Generation. Moderator Mark Rothman, the museum’s executive director, said that the idea is to bring different service providers together to share experiences and assess how survivors’ needs are being met.

“The forum will bring public attention to the issue, just like the article did, and create conversation in the community,” said Rothman. “Survivors are at a critical place in their lives, because their health needs are greater than the average senior citizen. Los Angeles has made considerable effort to help, but we need to go farther.”

Wake-Up Call

In the case of the Cohens, who also manage the Friedman Chabad Center on Olympic Blvd., the Jewish Journal article – which declared that out of the metropolitan area’s 10,000 to 12,000 survivors, a full 3,000 lack such basic necessities as food, medication, clothing and transportation – came as a wake-up call. They decided to take volunteers and assign them to survivors based on shared interests, whether in the realm of Torah study, chess, politics or art.

Around the same time, Rabbi Tzvi and Sheva Tauby created iVolunteer, a similar Chabad-run program, in New York.

Though survivors “don’t usually ask for help,” said Tzvi Tauby, director of iVolunteer, “it means so much for them when they do have it.” Even more, “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

Tara Bokman, one of the Generations Connect volunteers, has been visiting Hungarian survivor Elona every Tuesday for almost a year. On a typical visit, Bokman listens to the woman’s stories about her childhood and family. She’s even brought Klein to synagogue.

“She says that it’s nice to have someone Jewish to talk to,” said Bokman, 30, who runs her own stationary company in Los Angeles. “I’m just there to listen and to give her company.”

Jill Hoppenheim, 33, another volunteer, has been visiting another 88-year-old Hungarian woman every Sunday since January. Hoppenheim, a documentary filmmaker, brings groceries with her every week, a service tha Generations Connect pays for.

“She really loves our visits,” said Hoppenheim, who says that the meetings have changed her own outlook on life. “She is happy to be able to share and give insights.”

Mendel Cohen said that the survivor community, which dwindles with each passing year, has so much to offer, and that their poverty must be mitigated.

“The one-on-one experience of the volunteers and survivors is priceless,” explained the rabbi. “These are the last remaining survivors around, and their courage and faith is of great importance for everyone.”



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