It has been 74 years since the Holocaust came to an end in 1945, and on May 2, Jews across the world will recognize Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. However, the Holocaust is one of those tragic pieces of world history that will never be forgotten and in Far Rockaway, the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula (JCCRP) makes sure that those who survived the Holocaust are recognized regularly.
According to JCCRP Executive Director Moshe Brandsdorfer, the organization has been serving as a “one stop shop social services organization” for the community for 47 years. While JCCRP serves the broader Jewish community across the peninsula, the group also makes sure to recognize a very special population—Holocaust survivors.
For Brandsdorfer, helping those who have survived the Holocaust has special meaning. “I’m the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, so for me, it really hits home. My grandmother came here from Poland in 1949, with the shirt on her back. She got off in a boat in Boston and was given $10 by a Jewish organization, which was just enough for her to make her way to New York and buy some food for a few days,” Brandsdorfer said. “It’s a personal part of our mission for me and the community as a whole because many of us are children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Many of us are personally connected to these vulnerable holocaust survivors and we want them to be taken care of. We also recognize that as Holocaust survivors came and struggled with the clothes on their backs, they laid the groundwork for the lives that we now live in America. There’s a very sensitive, emotional tie that many in this community has with Holocaust survivors.”
With that personal connection, many of those at JCCRP take helping Holocaust survivors personally and throughout the Rockaway peninsula, they serve about 300 of these seniors. Those at JCCRP understand that these survivors are a vulnerable population. “Many of the immigrant Holocaust survivors that are active today are from the former Soviet Union, who immigrated at a much later date than my grandparents. Many came in the ‘80s and ‘90s at a later age. They were already 55 and up, and learning a new language and a new trade were extremely difficult. Some of them did, and some were not able to and some are displaced people from a different country with no real means of supporting themselves,” Brandsdorfer explained. “What they love to talk about most is their children and how many have gone on to become successful Americans that they’re very proud of, but there are also many that live below the poverty line.”
To assist this vulnerable population, JCCRP offers them a variety of social services and even food through a special food distribution once a month. JCCRP learns about the needs of their local Holocaust survivors through a committee of survivors themselves. “We have an advisory committee called the Holocaust Survivors Advisory Committee, made up of seven Holocaust survivors that get together quarterly in our office. We offer them lunch and they serve as our eyes and ears for the community to tell us everything from what food items they appreciate, to what projects and initiatives they want us to work on and they give us a tremendous amount of feedback,” Brandsdorfer said.
One important service JCCRP offers to Holocaust survivors is a monthly food distribution program. While JCCRP has a general food pantry, once a month, they hold a special food distribution specifically for Holocaust survivors so they can avoid long lines and pick up foods that are catered to them. “The fact that we give culturally sensitive foods is something that they really appreciate. There are so many different foods that for whatever reason they didn’t have in places like Russia, or they just don’t eat,” Brandsdorfer said. Providing an example, he explained that sweet potatoes are one food they don’t offer as they’ve found that many Holocaust survivors believe they’re rotten. “It would be a waste of funding to give them foods that they won’t use, so we use that funding to purchase the things they do want and distribute it to them on a day set for them. It allows us to give white glove service to them as Holocaust survivors and vulnerable seniors.”
Most of the survivors go to JCCRP’s office (1525 Central Avenue) to pick up their groceries, but those that are homebound and can’t make it are offered a delivery service. The food distribution is made possible by various sources of funding, food from different organizations and the work of JCCRP staff members and volunteers. According to Brandsdorfer, funding sources include the Claims Conference, the New York City Council, the Jewish Federation of North America and others. Food donations to the pantry come from places like City Harvest, the Food Bank of New York, the Met Council and other partners. Then volunteers, such as those from local schools, neighbors and even local politicians like Councilman Donovan Richards, Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato and Senator Joe Addabbo, stop by to help distribute the food.
Besides the food distribution, JCCRP’s network of Holocaust survivors utilize many more of their services. “Our benefits enrollment services are used a lot. Holocaust survivors often come to enroll in Section 8 and food stamps and health insurance programs with us as the language barrier is often difficult for them, so sometimes we have translators,” Brandsdorfer said.
JCCRP also has the backs of these particularly vulnerable seniors that often become victims of scams. “We have so many cases where Holocaust survivors are taken advantage of by insurance companies or cellphone scams. They wind up signing up for these services where they’re billed for thousands of dollars and they don’t know how to get out of them, so we’re here to help them,” Brandsdorfer said.
In addition to serving as a helping hand, JCCRP especially likes to bring a sense of dignity to these seniors. During the holidays, JCCRP makes sure to give a little something extra special with their food distributions. “For holidays times like during Passover, we’ll give out more holiday-related foods like matzoh and gefilte fish, and for Hanukkah, we’ll also give out little menorahs and candles or gold coins. They feel really good about it when we give them things related to the holiday,” he said. JCCRP also hosts a special concert for their survivors. “We have this Hanukkah concert where we have these Russian musicians and different speakers come and it gives them a real sense of dignity. They feel like they’re going out for a night on the town. But what they really appreciate most is knowing that they have a safety net and that someone has their back,” Brandsdorfer said.