Even when their attention is on a singer or speaker, or they are simply absorbed in conversation with those who share their traumatic history, the Holocaust survivors who attend Cafe Europa gatherings in Elizabeth or South Orange are also the focus of attention themselves. The monthly get-togethers provide a chance for social workers serving the two programs to check on how the participants are faring.
The two programs were started about 12 years ago as a way to help survivors in the region, many of them increasingly frail and isolated. They come together for a kosher lunch and an activity or program — like a performance, a talk, or a discussion.
Thanks to a new infusion of funding, the two cafes now have an enhanced ability to bring in participants. The Wilf Family Foundations, which have a long history of supporting services and institutions serving survivors, have just given $10,000 a year for three years to the Cafe Europa programs run by the Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ — both agencies of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The grants were organized in collaboration with federation executive director Stanley Stone, who pointed out that the Wilfs, in the spirit of the merger last year between the Central and MetroWest communities, had made a point of giving equally to both programs.
Audrey Wilf of Springfield said, “The Wilf family is deeply committed to Holocaust remembrance and to support of Holocaust survivors in our community. As they age into their 80s and 90s, they are becoming increasingly frail, and their needs are becoming greater. By making it possible for them to be part of a supportive community, we can help them to live out their days in dignity.
“We consider it an honor to help sustain Cafe Europa,” she said, “and the other important work federation is doing for our survivors.”
Tom Beck, executive director of JFS of Central NJ, which runs the Elizabeth gatherings, said, “We are delighted to have the additional resources for our Cafe Europa program. As a result of the generosity of the Wilf Family Foundations funding, we will now be able to expand our cultural and socialization program for our aging Holocaust survivors.”
Geriatric social worker Maris Chavenson, who coordinates those events, said, “We’ve already had some wonderful people come, and this means we can reach out to really high-caliber entertainers.” Between 20 and 25 people come to the lunches on the third Thursday of each month. She said the gatherings offer “an invaluable chance to get a pulse of how the survivors are doing and to see if additional interventions are needed.”
The oldest of those currently attending is 92. Pearl Zalmanovics, in her late 80s, is one of the younger ones. As a teenager during the war, she survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She came to the United States from what was Czechoslovakia in 1949 and now lives in Elizabeth. Four years ago, when her late husband was hospitalized, a friend persuaded her to come to a Cafe Europa lunch, to help lift her spirits.
JFS of Central NJ “has been very good to me, and I appreciate Cafe Europa very much,” Zalmanovics said. “Most of us are alone, and it is very nice to be able to get together with people who all went through those things.”
Reuben Rotman heads up JFS of MetroWest NJ, which runs the Lore Ross Cafe Europa serving seniors in Essex and Morris counties. It draws about 100 people to each of its twice-monthly gatherings at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. He described the program as a “jewel.” He said, “It gives our social work staff a chance to reach out to these people, to see if they need more home care or counseling and so on, without them dealing with the stigma of having to call to ask for help.”
The Oheb Shalom group draws people from senior housing communities in South Orange and West Orange, as well as those living further afield. In addition to the lunch gatherings, the Cafe Europa participants go on some field trips, or meet in sub-groups for activities like writing or quilting. “Some members drive or carpool, but an increasing number need transportation,” Rotman said, and the Wilf gift will help fund that crucial service.