By Mark Wilf
We ended last week with the news that $350 billion in small business loans offered through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act had been exhausted. The announcement of the availability of these funds, just two weeks before, was welcomed news and we are hopeful that rumors about the supply being replenished this week will come to fruition. The loans allow synagogues, Jewish healthcare agencies, community centers and others the ability to retain staff and continue to meet the rising demand for their critical services. Many have been able to benefit from the CARES Act, but additional funds are needed to help those who have been most impacted by this pandemic. Consider, for example, how social distancing and the health risks of COVID-19 have affected aging Holocaust survivors.
I am a child and grandchild of Survivors, and so this has special resonance for me. My family’s stories of resilience and strength have provided the motivation and passion behind my commitment to Jewish community. That it is one reason why I feel such privilege to serve on behalf of The Jewish Federations of North America and their partner organizations and agencies who help so many, including the remaining 80,000 survivors in the U.S., one-third of whom live in poverty.
Since 2015, The Jewish Federations of North America’s Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care has granted millions of dollars in government and privately raised funds to help Holocaust survivors live more comfortably in their homes and communities. Thanks to a broad network of social service providers across the country, we have spearheaded the widespread use of person-centered, trauma-informed care to enable Holocaust survivors to feel safe, secure and empowered as they age. Yet, the coronavirus pandemic has created new and specific challenges for this vulnerable group and their providers.
While some exercise resilience developed over the years, many survivors are already socially isolated and face depression, anxiety and physical health issues due to experiences of the past. And the social distancing requirements imposed by the threat of COVID-19 are exacerbating the impact.
Survivors have needs for socialization, food, medicine and safe access to home care and most are hesitant to ask for help in the best of times, as they don’t want to admit vulnerability. Being sick or vulnerable during the Holocaust could have been akin to a death sentence.
Our social workers, case managers and volunteers are trained to recognize and avoid triggers that could cause angst for survivors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the fear of disease, food and supply shortages, and mass anxiety are a trigger for some survivors.
Social distancing makes caring for them even harder, and our system’s professionals and volunteers are finding creative ways to engage with their survivor clients. They are enlisting friendly callers, making food deliveries and setting up lawn chairs six feet away from homes to enable safe conversations through an open window. They are organizing sing-a-longs via conference call and counseling over the phone. The technology-based programs JFNA has funded – like the Virtual Senior Center and Uniper Cares, which helps connect homebound survivors – are more important than ever now that all survivors are isolated. The agencies are seeing success and need additional funding to expand these life-saving programs.
This Yom HaShoah, as we mourn the murder of six million Jews, we must also remember the survivors alive today, in this country and around the world, who need our help. Holocaust survivors are our teachers and our role models. They compel us to confront bigotry and intolerance, and to embrace life with love and perseverance. We will use our ability to fundraise, our person-centered, trauma-informed philosophies, and our strong relationships with the government to ensure our survivor family, some of the most vulnerable among us, get what they need. We want to help them live with the dignity and honor they deserve. To do any less is not an option – not on my watch, not on our watch.
Mark Wilf is the chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America.