WASHINGTON, DC – The numbers shocked Rachel Cohen Gerrol. Nearly 200 Holocaust survivors were living at or near the poverty level in the Washington, DC, area — one of the wealthiest regions in the nation — forced to decide whether to buy food, fill a prescription or pay transportation to get to a doctor’s appointment.
“I was outraged,” she says. Outraged “not at the Jewish community, but because I didn’t know this before.” She figured other young adults would be outraged as well — and, like her, would want to help ease the burden of those survivors.
That was year ago, leading the DC resident to contact the local Jewish Social Service Agency. “Do you need legal skills, translators, friendly visitors?” she asked. “They said, ‘The No. 1 thing we need is funds.’”
Tapping on her extensive network and experience in philanthropy — she’s a co-founder of the Nexus Global Youth Summit, an international network of young philanthropists, social entrepreneurs — Gerrol, 35, created the Survivor Initiative, a volunteer project aimed at young adults and seeking to raise funds as well as awareness about the needs of Holocaust survivors. Early this year, the initiative began a second chapter in greater New York City, working with the UJA-Federation of New York’s Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors. There, the needs are much greater: Of 73,000 survivors, 51 percent live at or below poverty level.
Board member Zachary Lainer, a DC resident headed this summer to Los Angeles for law school, is starting a third chapter in the Los Angeles area. Next on the agenda will be a Philadelphia chapter.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) spoke Wednesday night at a DC fundraising event held in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month. “There is a moral obligation to acknowledge the plight of survivors,” she told the approximately 75 people, most in their 20s and 30s, at the event.
Marc Talisman, who has long been involved in Holocaust issues, urged the young adults to “talk to the highest policymakers in the land and elsewhere and to let your clear-cut views be known” not only on the needs of Holocaust survivors, but also on the need for German companies to pay off life insurance policies that Jews had taken out before the war.
The event came a day after Wasserman Schultz, along with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), David Joyce (R-Ohio), and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), introduced the Responding to the Urgent Needs of Survivors of the Holocaust Act. The RUSH Act would add Holocaust survivors to a priority list for social services that are provided as part of the Older Americans Act, including nutrition services, mental health counseling, and home modifications. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) planned to introduce companion legislation in the Senate on Thursday.
The bill also would designate someone within the Administration on Aging to oversee the implementation of all the services to survivors, and would ensure that meals provided by the Older Americans Act meet cultural and religious dietary needs.
Previous efforts to pass such legislation stalled.
Wednesday night’s event put the fundraising in Washington at close to $50,000 for its first year
Wednesday night’s event put the fundraising in Washington at close to $50,000 for its first year; funds are given to JSSA’s Holocaust Survivor Program.
Ellen Blalock, that program’s coordinator, says the money is funneled into the program’s general funds, which assist means-tested survivors who are physically and financially vulnerable. The funds supplement grants that JSSA receives from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and that are no longer sufficient to meet the growing needs of the agency’s clients.
The money from the initiative has helped clients by providing home care, Meals-on-Wheels services, supermarket gift cards and escorted transportation to medical appointments.
Lanier likes that the initiative “has an attainable goal. You hear 200 people, and think, ‘I can do something about that.’”
Gerrol said she’s been surprised that so many people she invited to join the initiative turned out to have had family members in the Holocaust. Initially, she thought it was the human rights aspect of caring for people in poverty that would draw young adults. Instead, she finds, “stories that have come out when they talk about their relatives have bonded them.”
Her mother-in-law had been born in a displaced persons camp to survivors. The initiative, she says, “is a way to honor my husband’s family.”
‘If she’s still helping others in need, it is incumbent upon us to help her generation’
Mark Weingram, a US Marine living in Washington, says his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, remains an active volunteer in the Philadelphia Jewish community. “If she’s still helping others in need, it is incumbent upon us to help her generation,” says Weingram, who notes that while he has signed up for Facebook pages for the “third generation,” as the grandchildren of survivors are known, he had not been active in anything until he began supporting the Survivor Initiative.
The initiative also offers volunteers for the JSSA’s programs friendly visitor program, which pairs volunteers with survivors. Gerrol and another volunteer visit a survivor on a regular basis. “We visit her for dinner, for coffee. We chat about everything from our Jewish identity to advice on marriage, career and family,” Gerrol says.
It is difficult, however, to set up matches for JSSA’s friendly visitor program, Blalock says. She explains that many would-be volunteers don’t have cars and survivors typically live in the suburbs; in addition, most of the would-be volunteers work during the day and survivors are not up for evening visits.
Still, Blalock says, “We’re so grateful for their help.”
‘I think it’s an unbelievable act that they are interested at all and they are willing to go out of their way and raise money for us’
“I think it’s an unbelievable act that they are interested at all and they are willing to go out of their way and raise money for us,” the survivor octogenarian paired with Gerrol says about the Survivor Initiative.
In New York, the Survivor Initiative has “catalyzed $50,000” so far, according to Gerrol. She says she can’t give an exact amount because the volunteers are waiting for an appraisal on an art donation. The money goes directly to the Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors (CIHS), which then allocates it among as many as 16 agencies working with this population depending on needs.
With CIHS’ goal to raised $10 million in the next 18 months, that $50,000 may seem like a drop in the bucket. But, Jessica Chait, the UJA-Federation’s assistant director of capital gifts and special initiatives, points out, “social isolation is a huge problem” and just $5,000 can provide a year’s worth of social programming for 200 survivors.
More important, she says, is awareness: “A group of any size, particularly with the networks of the people she’s [Gerrol] bringing together, can really go a long way in allowing us to share the message that there are survivors in need.”