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Holocaust Remembrance Day: A Time to Honor Survivors and Promote Their Dignity

03:17 PM Apr 23, 2009


This week, millions of people across the world commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day represents a time of deep reflection, particularly in the Jewish community, where we mourn the victims of the Holocaust and honor the survivors.

However, honoring the survivors is not only looking backwards; it is taking stock of the present and moving forward to ensure that the needs of this special population are met, enabling them to age in dignity. Holocaust survivors are a Jewish treasure; they are beloved grandmothers and grandfathers, but also our last link to first-hand testimonies that show the world the horrors of the Holocaust. However, today many Holocaust survivors live in abject poverty, unable to meet basic human needs.

Of the roughly 111,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors living in the United States, the average age is 79 years old and about 25 percent live below the federal poverty line (United Jewish Communities Resolution on Meeting the Needs of North American Holocaust Survivors). This is almost twice the national average, which was reported as 13 percent in August 2008 (American Community Survey). In addition, there are nearly as many Holocaust survivors living in near-poverty, ineligible for many government benefits while still struggling to make ends meet. In large cities, such as New York, the statistics are often even starker. According to William Rapfogel, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, of the 50,000 Holocaust survivors in New York City, 60 percent are poor or near-poor.

Not only is this population economically vulnerable, they have "greater and unique social, healthcare and financial needs than other in their age group. They are more economically and socially vulnerable, display significant health problems, and are in greater need of social services and home health care than their counterparts" (UJC Resolution). For example, Holocaust survivors disproportionately need community-based care, counseling services, and specialized outreach services. In addition, they may need help accessing restitution and their caregivers may need specialized training (ibid).

What is being done to address this problem?

Federated agencies already offer an array of services for Holocaust survivors, and are constantly striving to do more. Using funds from the Claims Conference and other sources, these agencies provide homecare and case management, transportation assistance, meals on wheels, financial management, and many more programs.

In order to respond to the unique, and often unmet needs of Holocaust survivors, many Jewish federations have developed innovative approaches, using both philanthropy and public advocacy. You can check out many of these innovations at: to see if any might apply to the Holocaust population in your community.

What can you do?

This week as you commemorate Yom Hashoah, there are several things you can do to advocate on behalf of and honor Holocaust Survivors:

    • Advocate in the federal budget! Call your members of Congress and urge the highest possible funding levels for programs that help meet the needs of Holocaust survivors. These include programs such as: Older American Act programs, Section 202 Supportive Housing, and the Social Services Block Grant. On the entitlement end, make sure your members of Congress know how important Medicaid and Medicare funding are to helping meet the unique needs of Holocaust survivors.
    • Volunteer! According to William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, one of the often unmet needs of Holocaust survivors is repair work on their homes that make it easier for them to age in place (i.e. installing rails in the shower or lowering the peephole on the door). Work with a local volunteer group to improve the quality of the substandard housing that many Holocaust survivors in your community may be living in.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact Melissa Boteach at

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