(lubavitch.com) Under Manhattan’s dazzling lights, Holocaust survivors met Tuesday at the Cooper Square Hotel’s magnificent penthouse, where they were joined by donors and volunteers in celebration and support of Ivolunteer.
A visitation program for homebound Holocaust survivors established by Chabad NYC representatives Sheva and Tzvi Tauby, Ivolunteer is now in its second year and counts 75 weekly visits. The overflow crowd reveled in their accomplishments and pledged to do more.
There are approximately 8,500 Holocaust survivors living in the United States, with 5,000 in the New York metropolitan area. Like those of their generation, this aging population faces medical troubles and financial setbacks. But unlike their contemporaries, survivors’ health is often aggravated by the abuse and malnutrition they suffered during their formative years: one new study found that Holocaust survivors are at a significantly higher risk for breast and colon cancers.
And because many Holocaust survivors were unable to have children, and others have become estranged from theirs, a large percentage of survivors have no one to lean on when times are hard. Depression and isolation are these survivors’ current realities.
That is where organizations such as Ivolunteer and Blue Card come into play. Working in tandem, the two groups, respectively, serve survivors’ emotional requirements as well as their economic needs. Blue Card, founded in the 1930s to help Jews escaping Germany, supports 1,700 survivors around the country. Its oldest client is 107 (originally from Hungary) and the youngest is 66 (born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943).
Elie Rubinstein, executive-director of Blue Card, was honored for his “noble work in the survivor community” at Tuesday’s dinner.
“We provide the financial help; Ivolunteer helps isolated survivors by giving them a social connection,” explains Rubinstein. “That is very important.” When not doling out funds for vitamins, treatments, and rent, Rubinstein encourages his clients to turn to Ivolunteer for the help he cannot provide.
These days, Ivolunteer faces an interesting dilemma: there are more volunteers in the pool than survivors. Many potential clients are too proud to call, others “don’t need help.” It is common instead for children, neighbors, and other agencies to refer survivors for friendly visits. But once they match up, true friendship usually abounds, a relationship, agree both survivor and volunteer, that is mutually valuable.
According to Roman Kent, treasurer and key negotiator for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Ivolunteer is the sole program that Holocaust survivors need today. Himself a Holocaust survivor, Kent received Ivolunteer’s lifetime achievement award for his work on behalf of survivors and his efforts to recognize non-Jewish wartime heroes. Kent told Tuesday’s audience that he had tried to start a similar program two decades ago. Though he invested millions to get it off the ground, it never took off. “I can’t believe you run this on no budget,” he praised directors Rabbi Tzvi and Sheva Tauby.
Ivolunteer is funded exclusively by private donation. It receives no money from the Claims Conference or other humanitarian organizations.
And though there has been a discernible decline in donations due to the economy, Tauby believes that “with work less of an obsession, people are looking for more purpose in their lives. More individuals have gotten involved, whether financially or through volunteering.”
Rubinstein, of Blue Card, says that “the one issue that no one in the Jewish community argues about is helping people who went through the concentration camps. It didn’t matter if someone was a communist or a Chasid, they all ended up in the same gas chambers. And the community recognizes that.”
“When people give donations, they want to get something out of it,” continues Tauby. “They feel good about being involved.”
For one volunteer, and one of Tuesday’s honorees, it was personal heartache that led to her interest in the Holocaust and resolution to help serve its survivors. Anjula Acharia-Bath, CEO of Desihits.com, grew up in a white neighborhood in London.
“We were the only family of color for miles,” she recalls. “There was an active neo-Nazi group who painted swastikas on our garage every week. Each week my dad painted over them.” On certain days, Acharia-Bath was forbidden from walking in town with friends because the neo-Nazis were parading.
“My parents explained what happened and it really shook me. I couldn’t understand people’s hate. Since then, I have always been passionate about the cause.”
It was only after watching Defiance, the story of the partisan Bielski brothers, that Acharia-Bath realized that there are living survivors. She Googled “visiting Holocaust survivors NYC” and stumbled on Ivolunteer. Since then, she has visited with several survivors, networked for the organization, and lent her boardroom for meetings.
“I am humbled by the survivors,” she declares. “They are old and frail, and they have been through so much, and yet they came out stronger. Focusing on how strong and amazing they are has helped me overcome what I was going through.”