Some cookies, some fruit salad, some bagels and cream cheese, maybe a flip through old photo albums.
That’s what Robert Brajer, 89, looked forward to during visits from Dorot volunteers over the last 2½ years.
The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, who lives in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, retired from a career in the retail business and bartending. He has lived alone since his partner died; afflicted with the lung disease COPD, he had found it difficult to get out of the house.
Now, during the coronavirus crisis, he leaves even less frequently.
And when the outbreak hit, the volunteers stopped coming because of social distancing rules. “I miss them very much,” Brajer said this week. Now they call at least once a week, to make sure that he is OK. “I feel better for the rest of the day.”
But, Brajer said in a telephone interview, it’s not the same as a face-to-face conversation.
Thousands of elderly Jews in Greater New York are in the same situation as Brajer, struggling to cope with the loneliness brought on by social distancing throughout New York City, the country’s epicenter for the spread of Covid-19.
A wide range of Jewish organizations — some whose primary focus is on Jewish senior citizens, and others that have expanded their mandate in recent weeks — are rallying to meet seniors’ physical and emotional needs. Some are staying in contact with the seniors by phone and internet, others are organizing live-streamed classes or are delivering packages of needed food and medicine while wearing masks and gloves as precautions.
Much of their work is coordinated through The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which this week began a new initiative delivering kosher food packages to more than 1,000 isolated Holocaust survivors in the New York area. The initiative is funded by private donations. The agency rented a warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hired two dozen employees and has scores of volunteers, said David Greenfield, Met Council executive director. “It’s unprecedented. You’ve heard of Fresh Direct — we’re ‘Kosher Direct,’” he said.
UJA-Federation of New York has approved millions of dollars in emergency funding for agencies serving the elderly and other vulnerable populations, and contributed to the multi-partner New York COVID-19 response fund.
Demographic studies show that the elderly are among the most isolated, and poorest, members of the city’s Jewish community. And during the coronavirus pandemic, they are the most at risk: People age 70 and older account for two-thirds of all deaths from the disease here, though they make up less than 10 percent of the population.
Met Council estimates the number of isolated, elderly Holocaust survivors in the New York area at 10,000, with another “tens of thousands” with roots in the former Soviet Union or born in this country.
Their advanced age “makes them particularly vulnerable during this time [of] extreme isolation,” according to an email from Selfhelp, which serves Holocaust survivors.
While representatives of these organizations said few seniors display clinical signs of depression, many are “anxious.”
Inka Lautman, 85, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who lives on Manhattan’s West Side and is “homebound since March 1,” spent the war years as a child in a series of camps and ghettoes. Her current quarantine is very difficult, she said, because it “brings back memories of the ghetto, of the war. I’m reliving my childhood.”
“I’m dependent” on the kindness of outsiders, including The Blue Card organization for Holocaust survivors, which has sent her cleaning supplies, she said.
But, said David Schechtman, a veteran Blue Card volunteer from Armonk, “I haven’t heard them [Holocaust survivors] complain. These are people who are simply happy to be alive.”
‘I have nobody’
Greenfield said Met Council’s new kosher food initiative is meeting a growing need. He cited a widowed Holocaust survivor, unable to have children after medical experiments in Auschwitz, who called Met Council this week and requested help. “I have nobody in my life,” she said.
Project Ezra, which serves the frail Jewish elderly on the Lower East Side, has distributed donated masks and direct relief checks to recipients. Blue Card is “working with their local pharmacies to arrange timely drop offs of their medication. We are paying for survivors’ medication co-pays, as well as for deliveries where needed,” Masha Pearl, executive director of The Blue Card, said.
There has been a “drastic increase” in requests for the Blue Card’s Telephone Emergency Response System units — buttons that are worn either around the neck or wrist and are activated in times of emergency. “As survivors are home alone, they fear any falls or accidents and are reaching out to us to have them set up with a unit,” said Pearl.
Organizations that have begun to offer remote services include the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and Jewish Association Serving the Aging, one of the city’s largest agencies serving older adults in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, have begun to offer expanded remote services.
Jewish seniors “absolutely are not being forgotten” said Danielle Palmisano, JASA’s senior director of intensive services and business development. Staff members who make home deliveries are trained to observe if the recipients need anything besides food, and participants in the phone and Zoom sessions also try to be alert to other signs of need, she said.
The main need of most, Palmisano said, is “social contact … having someone reach out to them.”
JASA has restructured its “Sundays at JASA” series of classes and Dorot has transferred its “University Without Walls” to online meetings via Zoom. Dorot has recently recruited more than 1,700 new volunteers for its Caring Calls program; participants call a senior twice a week.
Rabbi Moshe Wiener, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, said the organization provides telephone reassurance calls to “thousands of isolated seniors.” A primary goal of its services — including food delivery and its Connect2: Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors program — is to keep seniors in their own homes and out of nursing homes, “among the most dangerous places on the planet.”
With funding from the Claims Conference and assistance from the Israeli-American Council, the Coney Island institution arranges for delivery of kosher food from two restaurants, Sage Kitchen in Manhattan and Shnitzi in Brooklyn.
Several other Jewish groups have expanded their work with seniors since the coronavirus crisis began. Among them:
n Yeshiva University, whose students have partnered with Met Council to prepare food packages for hundreds of Jewish seniors;
n The network of Masbia kosher soup kitchens and food distribution centers, which has begun making deliveries to homebound people, including those unable to leave their home because of quarantine. Masbia has already exceeded its budget for the entire year, said Alexander Rapaport, the agency’s founding director;
n Volunteers from Repair the World, the Jewish service organization, deliver food packages to isolated Holocaust survivors in South Brooklyn and keep in touch as pen pals, said Rachel Figurasmith, executive director of Repair the World NYC.
Without the help of these organizations, the lives of isolated seniors would be “miserable — people would be starving,” said Mark Meridy, executive director of Dorot.
Dasha Rittenberg, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who lives on the Upper West Side, said she has not left her apartment for two months. Rittenberg, who is “92 … something like that,” said she spends her time reading and listening to music. “I do a lot of memory,” she said.
Blue Card has helped her with financial aid and household supplies, and volunteers call her regularly. “They help a lot.”
Rittenberg said she is counting the days until she can step outside again.
As is Robert Brajer, in his Morningside Heights apartment. He’s waiting for the visits from his Dorot volunteers to resume.
“I’m dying to be able to see people,” he said.
Who’s Offering Help
The following organizations are among those assisting Jewish seniors during the coronavirus outbreak:
Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty
The Blue Card (bluecardfund.org)
Project Ezra (projectezra.org)
Jewish Board of Family and
Children’s Services (jewishboard.org)
Jewish Association Serving the Aging
Jewish Community Council
of Greater Coney Island
Repair the World (werepair.org)