$1.7 million pledged for Holocaust survivors

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A group of Washington-area philanthropists has pledged $1.7 million to cover a budget shortfall in local services for Holocaust survivors, the first step in a drive to raise $5 million.

“We are on our way to meeting survivors’ needs,” said Lori Ulanow, chief development officer for the Jewish Social Service Agency, which serves Holocaust survivors.


JSSA has a projected $500,000 annual shortfall over the next decade in its budget for elderly survivors. About 200 survivors live in the Washington area. Their average age is 85. Two-thirds have annual incomes that are below the federal poverty level.

A fundraising meeting June 18 at the Potomac home of Gary and Carol Berman aimed to close the gap between revenue and need. Some 80 people attended, according to those who were there. By the next day, 33 people had made a pledge.

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Money raised will go to the newly established Holocaust Survivor Fund, administered by the United Jewish Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. It is a “draw down,” restricted fund to be used solely for JSSA’s Holocaust survivor program. Donors will pay off their gifts in five annual installments. This arrangement “allows for continuity and for people to consider a larger gift,” said Federation CEO Steven Rakitt. The fund is expected to close down in 10 years.

While the $1.7 million pledged is far from meeting the total need, “it’s still a pretty big chunk of money to raise,” said Emily Berman, daughter-in-law of Gary and Carol Berman, who was one of the meeting’s organizers.


“It’s a very generous response to a very compelling need,” Rakitt said. “But we’re not done. We’ve got a lot more to raise.”

Still, it’s a far cry from the situation in January, when JSSA was cutting services for survivors and calling for donations. The budget gap had opened because aging survivors were requiring more extensive services at the same time that German reparations funds for each survivor were decreasing. JSSA managed to raise $500,000, enough for only a temporary fix.

“JSSA doesn’t have the fundraising machine that Federation has,” said Jerry Greenspan, chairman of JSSA’s Holocaust Survivor Program.

So JSSA approached the Federation with the aim of finding a long-term fix.

“We view this as a community issue,” said Ulanow of JSSA. “We didn’t want to go back to the community year after year.”

In meetings with JSSA, the Federation agreed to establish a community fund and began seeking donors.

At the same time, Berman sons and daughters-in-law were becoming interested in the welfare of local survivors. By spring, the family was set to lead the fundraising effort. Because the need for funds was so urgent, they decided to call an “emergency meeting.”

“Twelve years ago, my father-in-law took us to a parlor meeting like this for an Israel emergency fund,” said Devorah Berman, a daughter-in-law. “We decided to try that format.”

At the meeting the Bermans described the level of need versus the level of funding. Then Gary Berman stood up and made his pitch. “He said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ ” said Emily Berman, a daughter-in-law. “’We’re going to stand up and make pledges. And this is how much we’re giving.’

“We didn’t know if anyone was going to stand up,” she said. “It was old school. It isn’t done this way anymore. Within two seconds, two people stood up. It was people taking action.”

Rakitt said it is notable that family members in their 20s and 30s were the impetus for the fundraising drive rather than those of the older generation.

The meeting came at a time when the unmet needs of survivors are being considered internationally. Last month, Germany agreed to an unprecedented additional $1 billion in funding for Holocaust survivors over four years. That amount is unlikely to solve the budget shortfalls of local communities.

Greenspan said the next step is to start phoning for more donations and turn survivor welfare into a community-wide cause. When school starts in the fall, he wants to launch a drive to collect 6 million coins. Organizers also may try raising funds through synagogues, Emily Berman said.
Greenspan hopes to reach the $5 million goal in six months to a year. “We don’t have time to waste,” he said.

Ulanow cautions that even if the budget shortfall here is met, it will only allow JSSA to provide 25 hours of care for survivors per week. “That’s the very base of what we think is appropriate care,” she said.

[email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel

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