By Avigayil Kadesh
Young professionals living in Tel Aviv are pairing up with lonely, aging Holocaust survivors in a unique volunteer effort dubbed “Adopt-A-Safta”
“Working off of the Big Brother/Big Sister model, our young volunteers will ‘adopt’ a grandmother [safta] or grandfather [saba] in Israel who is in need of love and attention,” explains founder Jay Shultz.
“We hope to train as many volunteers as possible and to connect these two communities -- young professionals seeking to make meaningful contributions, and the survivors in need of warmth and connection.”
Shultz, a self-described “struggling philanthropist” who moved to Israel from New York six years ago, runs several initiatives designed to coalesce what he calls Tel Aviv’s “young internationals,” including native Israelis and immigrants, by providing worthy outlets for their talents and interests. Adopt-A-Safta is the newest social project run under the umbrella of his Am Yisrael Foundation.
In September, Shultz emailed invitations to his database of about 20,000 to learn about Adopt-A-Safta, a joint project with the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims
in Israel. “This country has 200,000 survivors still with us, a quarter of whom feel really alone,” he says. “We don’t need to wait for money or government permission. We can create real good immediately.”
Project co-chair Kara Genderson, a 26-year-old geriatric social worker recently arrived in Israel from Washington, DC, points out that many young immigrants to Tel Aviv have no family in the country. So she sees Adopt-A-Safta as a way to build community and reduce the sense of isolation for both the volunteers and the survivors chosen specifically for this project.
The first training session drew 80 volunteers, not counting those turned away for lack of space. “They will visit once a week in teams of two,” says Shultz. “The ideal is four visits a month and eight phone calls a month.”
During their visits, the volunteers are encouraged to socialize, discuss current events, play cards or dominoes, go out for a walk or to a movie or a café with their adopted grandparents. If a light bulb needs changing or a computer needs tinkering, the volunteers can also help with that just as a “real” grandchild might do. In the future, group activities for volunteers and adopted grandparents are planned.
“We’re pairing volunteers with survivors by language,” explains Genderson, who previously trained home attendants for the elderly in Ukraine on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We have volunteers who speak Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian and Swedish, but the majority speaks English and Hebrew. And we always need Russian-speakers.”
Shultz and Genderson hope to recruit enough volunteers to reach 500 survivors in the next few months, branching out into Jerusalem and perhaps the north and south of Israel as well.
Time to start giving back
Shultz, 36, got the idea for Adopt-A-Safta from personal experience.
“My grandparents are survivors,” he says. “I came to Israel six years ago with no close family, but I did find my grandfather’s second cousin from Poland, Csilla Dunkleman, living alone in Haifa. She passed away two years ago, but it gave me great happiness getting to Haifa to visit her or call her once in a while. She taught me things about my family that I didn’t know.”
Jay Shultz with his Great-Aunt Csilla and his mother in Haifa.
Csilla was the inspiration for Adopt-A-Safta.
Having read that there were thousands of poor and lonely Holocaust survivors in Israel, he decided to match them with young adults in his network, and enlisted the assistance of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims.
This organization -- which recently published a report indicating that 40 percent of Holocaust survivors in Israel feel lonely, 12,000 lack proper heating and 5% suffer from shortage of food -- provided names from its database along with training materials, which Shultz had translated into English since the majority of volunteers are English-speakers.
Those trained so far include “a healthy mix” of secular and religious Jews, slightly more than half of whom are female.
“This is a next-generation project for us – it’s time for us to start giving back,” says Shultz, whose programs such as the Tel Aviv Arts Council, White City Shabbat and Tel Aviv Internationals Salon have tapped into a young professional population that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality estimates at more than 10,000.
“Western young immigrants don’t have the same problems as those from Ethiopia or Russia. Our biggest hurdle is that the government, NGOs and companies don’t use us enough. We came here for ideological reasons and have the benefit of good educations, skills, and talents in business and community building. We work hard to advocate not for what the government owes us, but for what we can do for Israel.”