With 40 percent of Holocaust survivors in New York City living in poverty, a Long Island entrepreneur is creating ways to raise funds for their care during the COVID-19 lock-down.
In November, when Evan Rosenberg started his “333.charity” organization, there were an estimated 40,000 survivors living in the NYC area. In part through the pandemic’s horrendous impact on elder care homes, that number has diminished to fewer than 36,000 people.
Focusing on survivors living in poverty, the 34-year-old Rosenberg began by selling merchandise to raise funds. With the onslaught of COVID-19 in the city, he switched gears to support a UJA-Federation of New York program that feeds Holocaust survivors living in poverty.
Rosenberg brings 15 years of restaurant industry experience to the charity. When he held a Zoom fitness class fundraiser, for example, he nabbed celebrities — including NBA star Isaiah Thomas and NFL player Julian Edelman — to make cameo appearances. That class raised $12,000 for survivors.
On Rosenberg’s forearm, the number “333” is tattooed. The family story behind this number, said Rosenberg, was the inspiration for his efforts.
Rosenberg’s maternal grandmother, who lives in Florida, grew up with two male cousins who were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. When the brothers arrived in New York City after the war, they knew exactly where to go thanks to their late mother — Rosenberg’s great-aunt — who was murdered at Auschwitz.
Before being deported to Auschwitz, the Czech-Jewish family discussed how “salvation” could be found at 333 7th Avenue in New York City — the work address of Uncle Bernard. As the siblings were separated from their mother for the last time at the death camp, she held up three fingers as a reminder.
Rosenberg, a native of Syosset, New York, was unaware of his family’s Holocaust story until a few years ago. In a Hanukkah card from his grandmother in 2014, she explained the story of “333” and the reunion with her cousins on 7th Avenue.
During the months after receiving his grandmother’s letter, Rosenberg kept encountering the number 333. It was not only his work address at the time, but 333 was his dry-cleaning locker number. The trend has continued for years, and prompted Rosenberg to have “333” tattooed onto his forearm in his grandmother’s handwriting last year.
In a greeting before the Zoom fitness class, Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann said he “happens to live under the poverty line.” Thanking participants for supporting survivors during “this very difficult time,” Steigmann praised Rosenberg and his initiative.
As a child, Steigmann was imprisoned with his family in the forced labor camp Mogilev-Podolsky in Ukraine. Because he was too young for labor, he was subjected to Nazi medical experiments. In recent years, Steigmann has made appearances on college campuses and schools to give testimony.
In addition to enlisting help from survivors and NFL players, Rosenberg partnered with 14 local restaurants who are on GrubHub, DoorDash, or other food delivery services. Each restaurant added a button at check-out inviting customers to “donate to Holocaust survivors” in increments of 10, 15, or 30-dollars.
“I wanted to help restaurants not to have to dip into their food costs,” said Rosenberg, who gives the donations to UJA on behalf of the restaurants. In recent weeks, donations and the sale of branded merchandise have steadily increased, said Rosenberg.
“It’s been a really crazy feeling,” said Rosenberg. “We’ve had donations from many countries, it’s been an overwhelming wow.”
‘She cried tears of joy’
Operating 333.charity since November has brought Rosenberg much closer to several family members, he said.
When Rosenberg showed his grandmother the “333” forearm tattoo based on her letter to him, “she cried tears of joy,” he said. “This has grown my relationship with my grandmother — our conversations are more deep-rooted and there is usually crying involved.”
Rosenberg also connected with relatives he’d never met, including a Holocaust survivor relative in Iceland, he said. Domestically, the project put him in touch with relatives in California.
Since finding resonance in his family’s story, Rosenberg has met with many Holocaust survivors in New York City, Long Island, and elsewhere.
“These people have already been through something so traumatic,” said Rosenberg. “They don’t deserve to go through anything else.”
In total, Rosenberg’s efforts have helped the federation deliver packages to 1,525 Holocaust survivors in the city, he said. Rosenberg also partnered with a company that makes kosher meal replacement shakes, with the product mailed directly to survivors.
The Facebook page of 333.charity illustrates Rosenberg’s fashion-oriented spin on fundraising. There are images of Rosenberg sporting “333” paraphernalia, most of it geared toward fitness. There are “Dad Hats,” joggers, and pop sockets, as well as “333” hoodies.
For Rosenberg, the point of “333” is for people to ask about the meaning behind the numbers. After his initial connection to the number at the end of 2014, one of his friends bought him a hat with 333 engraved on it. It was a sign of things to come, piquing Rosenberg’s interest in what he could do with his family’s legacy.
“’333’ is meant to be a universal message that you can overcome anything,” said Rosenberg. “I’ve never done anything quite like this where it is making such a big impact.”