New Adopt-a-Safta program brings survivors and volunteers together
September 19, 2012 | Atara Beck - Israel Correspondent
Jay Shultz, who initiated the Adopt-a-Safta program, with his great Aunt Csilla Dunkelman, who he often visited in Israel, where he was a new immigrant, until her passing two years ago. Also in the photo is Jay's mother, Sabina Shultz, on a visit from New Jersey.
TEL AVIV - The response to an invitation to young professionals to build a relationship with lonely Holocaust survivors garnered almost 100 responses.
Modelled on Big Brother/Big Sister programs, Adopt-a-Safta is a non-profit initiative that pairs young internationals and Israelis with survivors in need of companionship. The goal is to train as many volunteers as possible while, as the invitation explains, “we still are blessed with the presence of this holy generation.”
‘Safta’ is Hebrew for grandmother, but one could adopt a grandfather – ‘Saba’ – as well.
About 198,000 survivors live in Israel, according to Guy Oren, manager of volunteering services at the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, Adopt-a-Safta’s partner in this initiative.
“We’re racing against time because they’re disappearing for natural reasons,” he told the crowd. According to statistics, “we lose about 35 a day or more than 12,000 a year.”
Adopt-a-Safta is the brainchild of Jay Shultz, president of the Am Yisrael Foundation, which oversees the program. In his outreach literature, he wrote, “We know that we can make a major dent in the problem of comforting lonely Shoah survivors today; not to do so as a responsibility, but as a noble honour.”
In fact, Shultz had the privilege of developing exactly such a relationship after moving to Israel from New Jersey six years ago. For the first time he met Holocaust survivor Csilla Dunkelman, his grandfather’s cousin.
“She passed away two years ago, but since I moved to Israel with no close family, having her here made me feel just a bit more connected with my new home,” Shultz told the Jewish Tribune.
So the benefit was mutual.
“Plus she had an incredible memory and I learned so much about my family back in Poland before the war…specifically about my great-great-grandfather, the tzaddik (saint) Chaim Friedman, and how he learned Kabbalah throughout the night on Thursday evenings, how he saved the Torah scrolls from the local shul before the Nazis marched into town, and how he died l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), being dragged to his death by the Nazis behind a horse.
“Csilla lived in Haifa, and I would drive to visit her from Tel Aviv from time to time. She was born in the same small village (Dombrova, outside of Krakow) as my grandfather and immigrated to Israel after surviving the Shoah.”
Csilla’s son, Avi Dunkelman, lives in Toronto.
“Jay is doing a wonderful thing with his Adopt-a-Safta program,” he told the Tribune. “Growing up, any friend or relative that we knew was an uncle [or aunt]. I never had grandparents, so any elderly person became one….
“When Jay went to Israel, he became her grandson.”
Torontonian Kristen Carvalho, 22, is doing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.
“I always had a focus on social justice and wanted to volunteer in any way I could,” she said. “In the past, I volunteered at a retirement home. I like helping seniors….
“When I saw this invitation, I wanted to help, to make a difference, especially because they’re survivors….of such a cruel event in world history. It’s important to hear their stories while we can.”