Expedited Vaccines for Holocaust Survivors

A Holocaust survivor receives his vaccine at Ezra Medical Center. (Photo by BPJCC)

Social services organizations in New York City have been busy during the last few weeks in expediting vaccination of Holocaust survivors as they mobilized their resources to help facilitate the inoculations for the dwindling elderly survivors living in the city.

“The presence of Holocaust survivors in our city is a reminder of just how recently that history took place, and we’ve got to be there for these people,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on February 10, after meeting with community leaders on Tuesday evening.

Although the mayor pledged to allocate vaccinations and set up sites to service this vulnerable group, Jewish organizations have been busy for weeks even before the mayor’s announcement to help expedite shots for them.

“When we think about these Holocaust survivors who went through such turmoil in their lives and what they have lost, we must internalize how precious time is for them and how they have been locked up for a whole year,” said Mr. Eliezer Igel, CEO of Ezra Medical center and an executive board member of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council (BPJCC). “It was time when they could not get together with relatives or participate in their family celebrations. Every day we delay in providing them with a vaccine is a catastrophe. It is crucial to prioritize getting them the vaccines as soon as possible as we try to restore a bit of what they have lost over the last year.”

“We anticipated that it would involve a tremendous amount of bureaucracy, and many of our clients would find it difficult to navigate,” Avi Greenstein, CEO of the BPJCC told Hamodia. “The BPJCC stepped in and partnered with the Boro Park Y and Ezra Medical Center to help arrange it for them. For the past few weeks, we have been reaching out to elderly Holocaust survivors in our area to assist them in setting up appointments and to provide transportation to the sites in order to simplify the process for the survivors.”

Louis Welz, CEO of COJO of Flatbush, described how his organization utilized some available grants to facilitate the vaccination of Holocaust survivors. “The New York City Council has allocated funds, under the Elie Weisel Holocasut Survivor’s Initiative, to assist survivors living at or below the federal poverty line with a wide range of services, including preventive health care, medical appointment transportation, case management support and home delivered meals. We were able to tap into these existing programs and utilize them to help us transport our eligible clients to local medical facilities and get them vaccinated,” Mr. Welz told Hamodia.

“Most of the survivors we serviced are those who interact with us on a regular basis throughout the year, providing them with medical and social services. We help them schedule appointments at Rambam Family Health Center, Community Hospital and Ezra Medical Center, and we are in daily contact with these facilities who informed us of any open slots due to no-shows. These slots are then made available for our clientele, and we then helped those who needed transportation to get to the medical facility in time.

“We also advocate for any health aides of these survivors who are eligible to be vaccinated, since they remain vulnerable to the spread of the virus until several days after they receive their second dose.”

Anyone who is a Holocaust survivor is obviously elderly, and many have a mistrust of the vaccine and of the medical establishment. “The hardest part is if they run short on vaccines because of the uneven supply chain. Some heard the conspiracy theories that they are withholding it because it is poisonous, and cancellations causes great anxiety and feeds into the fear of these people,” Mr. Welz related. “In fact, when we had to cancel 100 appointments due to the snowstorm last week, one third of them did not reschedule. We work hard to create ease of access which encourages them to carry through with getting vaccinated.”

To date, the BPJCC has compiled a list of 750 people who requested their help, and already 503 of them have been vaccinated. “We are happy to have assisted two thirds of those who applied, and we hope to arrange appointments for the remaining third rather soon,” Mr. Greenstein related.

The UJA Federation of New York provided a significant grant which helped launch the program, and the sentiment on the streets of Boro Park is a sense of gratitude that they have provided such crucial funding for such a vital service, with the hope that this program will be scaled-up and expanded quickly. The Claims Conference, which advocates for Holocaust survivors, provided guidance and assistance as well.

“UJA-Federation is proud to partner with Boro Park JCC and Boro Park Y on this critical effort to help vaccinate Holocaust survivors,” said Eric Goldstein, CEO, UJA-Federation of New York. “UJA is providing substantial support to community-based organizations because, for survivors and other vulnerable communities, it is vitally important to help them get access to vaccines in their own neighborhoods and information from sources they respect and trust.”

“Many of these seniors are familiar with our offices and that of the ‘Y’ since they have received other services through the BPJCC and the Boro Park Y, so they feel comfortable when we approach them and offer to assist them, and offer them some extra sensitivity,” explains Mr. Greenstein. “Unfortunately, many are a bit frightened to travel out of their comfort zone to receive their shots in the outer neighborhoods, so it is vital for us to coordinate their vaccinations in a more local and community-based setting, where they have a greater degree of trust. Through our partnerships, we have been able to facilitate many Holocaust survivors in their quest, and with this additional funding we hope to reach even more.

“A more recent substantial grant from UJA will allow us to pivot from being just reactive to those who reach out to us, to become proactive by reaching out to them. We can now hire 2 people for 4 months, who will be tasked with reaching out to other survivors not yet on our list. We plan to encourage them and reassure them about the process and safety of the vaccine, and to make sure they receive the services they need in order for them to get their vaccinations. This will include door to door transportation, a translator if necessary, and anything else we can provide to make sure their experience is unproblematic.”

BPJCC has partnered with the Boro Park Y to help contact the eligible survivors, and with Ezra Medical Center, which has locations in Boro Park at 1278 60th St. and at 1312 38th St., to arrange for the appointments for the inoculations. Ezra Medical has a waiting list of some 5,000 people, so helping the survivors navigate the system is essential. In addition, since they are receiving the Moderna vaccine which requires a follow-up shot in 4 weeks, extra effort is being extended to fit in as many as possible during the next week in order to avoid any conflicts with the upcoming Yom Tov of Pesach.

“On behalf of the Boro Park Y, we are so thrilled to have initiated this life-saving endeavor together with the BPJCC and Ezra Medical Center,” says Ellie Kastel, Boro Park Y’s Executive Director. “The strength of the community was behind our three core, community organizations as we recognized the urgency of the situation and got together to provide for the needs of our Holocaust survivors without a thought towards money or honor. Together, with the assistance of the UJA, we have already been able to help hundreds in a very short time through this ongoing program and look forward to helping hundreds more as well.”

In an effort to reach even more of the survivors, the BPJCC has initiated a pilot program with Blue Card, an organization which assists Holocaust survivors in need, to offer a complete Shabbos meal package once a month for 50 survivors for the entire year for those who receive their vaccines. Heritage Levavot, a neighborhood heimishe organization, has recently contributed additional funding for meals, which the BPJCC is steering to these survivors as well.

“It’s just a small, extra incentive for these seniors to get vaccinated, and it helps convey its importance and encourages them to sign up. We hope to scale-up this program and include many more,” Avi said. “In addition, this gives us an additional opportunity to call on them and ask if they got the package, and at the same time we can inquire how they are faring as a result of the shot.”

“The Nazis tried unsuccessfully to prevent these people from experiencing the continuity of their families, but COVID stopped them from participating in the celebrations of their family milestones,” said Eliezer Igel. “It behooves us to help them reconnect with their children and grandchildren by assisting them in getting back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.”

Holocaust survivors can sign up with the BPJCC by clicking HERE or can reach out to the BPJCC at 718-972-6600. COJO of Flatbush can be reached at 718-377-2900.

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