It Takes a Village: Reducing Social Isolation for Holocaust Survivors

In an ironic twist, just as we at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation (GMJF) prepared to solicit proposals for the second year of our Critical Supports for Holocaust Survivors grant funded by the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), the world was starting to close in around the population that the grants were intended to serve. All GMJF sub-subgrantee programs were suddenly forced to suspend activities as the emergence and subsequent explosion of Covid-19 required all seniors to self-isolate for their own protection. Mitigating social isolation was a major goal of our projects and would now be both more crucial and more challenging. We asked applicants to consider innovative alternative virtual formats as it became apparent that Holocaust survivors were not likely to embrace many technology platforms used by younger people.

[Editor’s note on the Critical Supports program: The Center has awarded a limited number of subgrants to Jewish Federations to convene local aging services providers and other community stakeholders and collectively develop strategies to meet the needs of local Holocaust survivors, older adults with a history of trauma, and their family caregivers, called the Critical Supports program. Services that have been funded through this program include financial assistance to prevent and resolve emergencies; medical, dental, and other health and social service needs; food, home repairs, and home care; and support groups and training for family caregivers.]

The programs that we have funded for Year Two of our grant have indeed applied creative thought to deliver meaningful and nurturing programs. We have been pleasantly surprised to learn that many of the programs are mobilizing community members to help address the needs of Holocaust survivors.

As witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is important to Holocaust survivors that they share their stories with younger generations so that the Holocaust and its lessons will never be forgotten. This is especially true in light of a new survey commissioned by the Claims Conference that yielded "shocking and saddening" results, showing millennials and Gen Z have a "worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge" (full article here).

Two current GMJF sub-subgrantees, the Michael Ann-Russell JCC (MAR-JCC) and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, both feel that it’s important to incorporate intergenerational teaching and learning into their programs. To do so, they have paired B’nai Mitzvah students with Holocaust survivors, and use virtual communication to foster meaningful and informative relationships. The students are trained in person-centered, trauma-informed (PCTI) care before they can volunteer. [Editor’s note: PCTI care is a holistic approach to service provision that promotes the dignity, strength, and empowerment of trauma survivors by incorporating knowledge about trauma into all agency programs, policies, and procedures.]

MAR-JCC is also enlisting many of the cohorts they host at their Center to provide special contributions for their Holocaust survivors in an innovative, comprehensive strategy, including adapting their “Being with Others” program to meet over Zoom instead of in person. As part of this program, regular virtual gatherings offer varied activities like cultural presentations, making art, and celebrating holidays. For each activity, JCC staff identify the objects necessary to engage participants in the virtual session, create special packages of these items, and then personally deliver them to each Holocaust survivor in advance of the upcoming gathering. These packages are designed with the intent to ensure that each recipient knows that they are cared for and held in special esteem. As part of each month’s package, a different group at the JCC will create something special for each Holocaust survivor to enjoy, including cards created by preschoolers, holiday items like menorahs or Kiddush cups made by teens, and traditional food items baked by other volunteers. The significance and thoughtfulness put into these deliveries has been especially important because Holocaust survivor participants have been more resistant to trying the Zoom calls than had been anticipated. Participants have been delighted to receive a socially distanced visit from an emissary of the program with their special packages, regardless of if they choose to attend the virtual gathering on Zoom later.

Meanwhile, other volunteers at GMJF sub-subgrantee organizations are delivering supplies like food packages, making phone calls, and providing technology coaching. Some organizations elevated these tasks to personalize services. One sub-subgrantee, Cadena International, is not only delivering needed food, but volunteers are also working with Holocaust survivors to enable the recipients to select particular items ensuring that they receive individualized food packages that reflect their personal preferences. Each volunteer is paired with a Holocaust survivor who they call regularly to check up on them and keep them company, as well as to support them with technology devices when helping them order their groceries.

Another GMJF sub-subgrantee working to help reduce social isolation in their Holocaust survivor clients is called Holocaust Heroes Worldwide, a new organization founded by a third-generation survivor. Their grant is funding Tribe Project, a unique model that creates a connected system of volunteers around each individual Holocaust survivor. This organization establishes and supports small teams of four people, known as Tribes, to become stable forces in a Holocaust survivor’s day-to-day life. The idea is two-fold: 1.) to create ongoing deep connection and friendship for each Holocaust survivor, and 2.) that the tribe is also there to support one another. Tribe members provide food deliveries, phone calls, surprises with uplifting gestures, and help with everyday errands. To make sure this program is sustainable, the organization provides a unique structure of teamwork to the volunteers and follows up with them weekly on what was accomplished. Additionally, group Zoom programs have been made available to the Holocaust survivors and volunteers. To help with this, Tribe members have successfully taught Holocaust survivors how to use Zoom.

“It Takes a Village” is a well-known phrase that describes how a group of caring people can work together to achieve a common goal for members of their community. We have found this to truly epitomize the work being done through the Critical Supports grant provided by JFNA to the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Fran Katz is the Community Support Coordinator at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation (GMJF) in Miami, Florida. There, Fran manage the grants awarded to GMJF by Jewish Federations of North America for the Critical Supports for Holocaust Programs. She oversees and manages all aspects of the grant for the Leadership Council and the subgrantees. This includes planning, training, communications, grant selection, financial management, reporting and more. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY.