10 years on, the impact of Biden’s Holocaust survivor initiative is still growing

On Dec. 10, 2013, I braved the cold that had shut down Washington, D.C., to hear then-Vice President Joe Biden address the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s centennial anniversary luncheon and make an announcement with tremendous potential to improve the lives of Holocaust survivors.  

As an advocate for Jewish Federations and family service agencies, I had spent 2013 in near daily contact with the White House, Congress, local service providers and philanthropists, making the case for Holocaust survivors in the U.S. — a population whose unique needs required innovative solutions from government and civil society. I knew that today Biden would launch the result of all of our ideas and efforts: the White House Holocaust Survivor Initiative, a public-private partnership to address pressing needs of Holocaust survivors as they age.  

The author thanks then-Vice President Joe Biden following his speech at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s centennial anniversary luncheon on Dec. 10, 2013. Photo by William Daroff

The announcement was a watershed moment. The ensuing program has touched the lives of more than 40,000 Holocaust survivors; and it has spurred a national movement to help all older adults as they age, using lessons from Holocaust survivors. The Jewish community has developed and shared the person-centered, trauma-informed (PCTI) approach to care — an innovative framework that has proven successful at helping survivors and other older adults by recognizing the impact of trauma — and created a national resource center, authorized by Congress, with the aim of spreading PCTI care throughout aging services. 

Thanks to dedicated philanthropists and the bipartisan support of Congress’s Holocaust Survivor Assistance Program (HSAP), a Holocaust survivor in Detroit learned to text her granddaughter through her iPad; a survivor in New Jersey received pro-bono dental care; an African American senior had her broken sink and toilet repaired by a technician trained in PCTI care; and a family caregiver felt the “weight of the world lifted” from her shoulders when the local Jewish human service agency stepped in to provide supports. 

Today, our Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma is the only entity dedicated to funding, learning, and sharing the most promising practices of serving Holocaust survivors, so we may develop tools to help all older adults with a history of trauma and their family caregivers. With as many as 90% of older adults having a history of trauma, the learnings from Holocaust survivors provide pivotal knowledge for all aging services.  

The horrific events of Oct. 7 and the subsequent surge of antisemitism has re-traumatized many Holocaust survivors. We know that empowerment is key to the PCTI approach, which is why we helped 870 Holocaust survivors make their voices heard, penning a letter to President Biden expressing support for Israel. Ahead of the annual White House Hanukkah party, President Biden held a private meeting with Holocaust survivors to hear their stories and learn from their wisdom. 

Looking back on the White House announcement ten years ago, I recall how thrilled I was to thank Biden for supporting Holocaust survivors. He was right when he said we can accomplish more if we work together. And while we’re proud of our achievements of the past decade, the biggest impact is yet to come. As more foundations, state and local governments, and private-sector companies join our mission and invest in the caring principles we have mastered, we will be able to continue scaling programs that improve life for older adults and their families.  

The Jewish community is well positioned to lead this charge. We have experienced collective trauma, and we have learned from it. Crisis upon crisis, we have persisted and risen to meet contemporary challenges. For so many years, Holocaust survivors have been our teachers and our heroes. In the years to come, their legacy will continue to teach us about how to make the world better for all people.  

Shelley Rood Wernick is the managing director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma.