What Would Miriam Do?

What Would Miriam Do?
From March to Miriam, an Empowerment Program Offering Light to Holocaust Survivors in Their Twilight Years

By Jack Rosenbaum

As the director of the March of the Living (‘March’) Southern Region, I know many survivors. I cherish each of them. Survivors who accompany teenagers to Poland and Israel, exhibit courage when they return to the places they suffered and lost. Participants on the two-week program experience deep pain when they listen to the horrors of the Holocaust experience, yet they also rejoice about survivors’ good years before and after WWII. There is more rejoicing when the trip moves onto Israel. These connections embody the past meeting the present, assuring a bright Jewish future, which is a main goal of the ‘March.’ Many students continue enduring relationships with ‘March’ survivors after the trip.

The Dream: Why limit this meaningful personal contact only to ‘March’ alumni and ‘March’ survivors? I thought of survivors who cannot travel. My thoughts were of anguish, especially for those survivors who have little money, are infirm and whose families rarely contact them.

  • I pictured alumni and students enjoying social time with survivors.
  • I visualized conduits for alumni to reclaim the intensity of their ‘March’ experience.
  • I envisioned “doable” action in the form of a well-maintained program.
  • I imagined meaningful introductions to the services of the Jewish Federation.
  • I saw a means to pay it forward by offering alumni and new “marchers” a path from the ‘March’ to acting on the Mitzvah of hiddur p’nei zaken (honoring the elderly).

The Concept: Move from the ‘March’ to social action. “From March to Miriam” honors the altruism Miriam showed the Israelites at the Red Sea. According to the grant we received from the Jewish Women’s Foundation (JWF) of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, older alumni had to be female. What greater honor to bestow on them than to emulate Miriam!

‘March’ alumni carry ingrained memories of their trip. No “doable” social action opportunities existed when they returned. Time and “real life” caused many to drift away from community.

In South Palm Beach County the Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service (RRJFS) assures the health of survivors easing the difficulties of their twilight years. Case-Managers are specially trained to work with survivors. They assure clients get health care they need. Alas, when one Case-Manager has more than 60 clients, basic needs for socialization get lost. At best a phone call, or a quick visit, is made. Limited human contact is the norm.

This is how From March to Miriam (FMTM) evolved from my dream to extend human contact for JFS survivors. It required $20,000. Professionals would be engaged using 65% of the funds. The rest would assure community programming for the participants. A grant request was submitted to the JWF, which offers grants to improve the lives of adult women and children up to college age. Combine a mix of a proven funder – add the needs of students, alumni and survivors – and voila! A program is born.

The Program: There is much more to this program than a required minimum weekly phone call and once-a-month visit. Teams are formed after a vetting process by the coordinator. Teams are made up of three essential people: Survivor, Teenager and a ‘Twenty to Sixty-Something’. A fourth connection was created that includes the help of active MOL survivors. A member from each group is matched to form a team. Training sessions with professionals are required and then teams are connected with a Holocaust Survivor who receives services from RRJFS and whose clinicians monitor and advise each relationship. Just as Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels on the other side of the parted Red Sea to offer a sign of hope and trust; the teams extend their hearts in companionship to the Survivors, becoming their “Miriam,” and contributors to the community.

The relationships that are created improve the life of the survivor and make a relevant and lasting impression on team members. Students are mentored by the adult alumni and professionals. Every layer of FMTM connects participants through Jewish identity, friendship, leadership skills, education, advocacy, and community action.

The Results: Survivors call their Case-Managers thanking them for the program. Case-Managers share anecdotes of survivors who are “finally” smiling. Many survivors have come out from their homes for the first time in months to attend community activities with their teams. Numerous Shabbat dinners have occurred, as well as countless visits and phone calls to survivors by teammates. Survivors are heartened. Teams are empowered to continue their volunteer efforts and use the leadership skills being shared to improve their own persona and add to social action movements in the community and society. Students leaving for college pledge to call their survivor. Team members encourage friends to get involved. Some students asked their mothers to join their team.

The Future: As we enter our second year and new teams join FMTM, some established teams will mentor the new cohorts. Our coordinator inspires team members to expand skills and programs to offer more opportunities. FMTM starts students and alumni off with a role in which they can easily be successful. We are continuing our relationship with the JWF and RRJFS.

The youngest survivor is 70 years old. To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon from Chapters of Our Fathers (2:15-16), “The day is short, the task is large…, and the reward is great… It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” You can make this happen in your community before time runs out.

The dream is real.

For more information, visit: jewishboca.org/departments/programs/mol/fmtm/

Jack Rosenbaum is Director, March of the Living Southern Region, USA of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Florida. He has been implementing programs with the March of the Living Southern Region since 1995.