November 20, 2018

Local groups receive volunteers to aid Holocaust survivors

A new partnership between national and Jewish service organizations will connect volunteers with Holocaust survivors beginning in September in several major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. 

Through an initiative between the Corporation for National & Community Service, Jewish Federations of North America and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, members of AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program will assist survivors — a population at high risk of isolation and institutionalization — with health care, transportation and other needs. 

In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which provides free legal services to the disadvantaged, and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, will each receive one volunteer through VISTA. Vivian Sauer, JFS director of program development, said the program is much needed.

“Holocaust survivors are an underserved community nationally,” she said. “But also, a lot of them are in poverty.”

According to Federation, there are about 113,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today. About a quarter of them are living at or below the federal poverty line — compared to 9 percent in poverty of the overall population of seniors. 

The move is part of a broader campaign by the Obama administration to address the needs of survivors living in the United States. In January, it was announced that the administration would be appointing Aviva Sufian as be the first-ever special envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services, a new position in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

VISTA was founded in 1965 as an endeavor to battle domestic poverty through public service.  Volunteers make a one-year commitment to a project at a nonprofit agency or organization.

Through the new partnership, volunteers will be placed at 14 Jewish organizations in seven states: California, Illinois, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and New York. A spokesman for Federation said the first round of recruitment marks the next step in the process for the partnership and that participation could potentially expand to other states in the future. 

AmeriCorps volunteers are generally between 18 and 25, the spokesman said, but any volunteer 18 or older is eligible to work on Holocaust survivor projects and should apply through the participating agencies. The organizations will be accepting applications through July 14, and the volunteers will begin working in September. 

Nancy Volpert, JFS director of public policy, said interest is strong.

“We’ve received quite a few resumes,” she said. “Certainly the response has been good to the position.”

JFS provides counseling, food and housing services to needy members of the community. Sauer said the agency was one of the two California organizations chosen because a large number of Holocaust survivors — roughly 1,000 — receive its services. 

Sauer said JFS’ VISTA volunteer will develop new programs for Holocaust survivors and reach out to members of the survivor community, including child survivors beginning to experience the age-related difficulties of their older counterparts.

“We need to make sure that the voice of the survivor community remains a key part of what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to be a part of this national initiative.”

Diego Cartagena, Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director, said the firm’s VISTA volunteer will focus on the intersection of two areas of law: Holocaust reparations payments and federal benefits payments. 

A law passed by Congress in 1994 prevents reparations payments from being counted as income when determining survivors’ eligibility for federal programs like Supplemental Security Income and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). Because many people are not aware of the law, complications can arise easily, Cartagena said. To avoid similar conflicts in the future, the VISTA volunteer will be responsible for developing educational material to help Holocaust survivors understand their rights. 

“This is an effort on our behalf to try to be proactive about the issue, and make sure people are aware of it,” Cartagena said.