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Jay’s experiences with his grandfather’s second cousin inspired him to create the ‘Adopt-a-Safta’ scheme

The Adopt-a-Safta scheme (Hebrew for ‘Adopt a Grandma’) encourages new arrivals in Israel with no family of their own to ‘adopt’ one of the country’s 200,000 Holocaust survivors – many of whom face isolated lives below the poverty line. Sima Borkovski meets some of its participants.

Like many great ideas, Adopt-a-Safta was born from personal experience. When Jay Shultz arrived in Israel from New York six years ago, one of his first experiences was loneliness, with no close family around to keep him company on Shabbat or holidays.

However, the 37-year-old found that his grandfather’s second cousin from Poland, Csilla Dunkleman, who has since passed away, was living alone in Haifa. “At the time it gave me much pleasure to visit her and give her a call every now and then and she was pleased with her newly-found ‘grandson’. This inspired me to initiate the ‘Adopt-a Safta’ project,” Shultz explains.

“I have created a partnership with the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims, which gave us the names from its database along with training materials. We match people according to the language they speak. Our volunteers speak Yiddish, Russian and even Swedish, but most of them get along with English. We now have hundreds of volunteers. The project started in Tel Aviv but on the last Holocaust Memorial Day we launched in Jerusalem as well.”

The government has good intentions but the reality is that there are about 200,000 Holocaust survivors who live in poverty and face loneliness. Instead of talking, Shultz decided to take action and create good immediately without waiting for the government to act.

“This connection with the old Jewish generation is so valuable and it’s something we can’t take for granted,” Schultz emphasises. The volunteers “learn about the history of the state of Israel from the generation which built it and this helps them to form their Jewish identity”.

Sara Channa Eisen-mann lives in a two-room apartment in the Nachlaot neighbourhood in Jerusalem. She is a child-survivor, the only one left of a family of 38 people. Eisenmann is a recognised artist and writer who published two books under the literary name Annika Tetzner (Eisen-mann is her mother’s last name, while Tetzner is her father’s name).

Her paintings and books describe her childhood in the Holocaust, first in Terezin and afterwards in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was one of ‘Mengele’s children’. On the walls of her small apartment hang colourful paintings but what really catches the eye is her rich collection of dolls. It is as if they are everywhere, ancient dolls, some of them 40 years old and one 100 years old.

They stare at you with hollow round eyes, a symbol of lost childhood. It’s the childhood Sara never experienced as she was deported to Terezin with her family when she was only two.

There are no documents that state Sara’s date of birth, since her mother chose not to register her when she was born. This affected her when she made Aliya since she had to “prove” to the Rabbinical Court and Israeli Ministry of Interior that she is Jewish in order to get her Israeli ID card.

Like many Holocaust survivors she suffers from loneliness -she is a widow and her five children and grandchildren live away from her in Europe. Sara needs a cane to help her to walk and her only companion is a small black dog called Troli.

When asked about her experience with the “Adopt A Safta” project, Sara smiles immediately. “I feel they treat me like a person, not just a survivor,” she says. “Stephanie, who volunteers with me, is a sweet girl and I love our meetings. We usually meet on Mondays and she will help me with shopping or form-filling.

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Stephanie Schneider made aliya to Jerusalem and has volunteered with Sara for several months

“Bureaucracy has no eyes or ears and these people, the volunteers and the social workers who operate them, do whatever they can to ease my life and that of other Holocaust survivors.”

Stephanie Schneider, 28, made Aliya from Colorado to Jerusalem and has volunteered with Sara for several months. “I truly enjoy our meetings and look forward to seeing her,” she says. “My grandmother is also a Holocaust survivor and I wish this project existed in the States as well.”

Jonathan Josephs arrived in Israel from Montpellier and a successful career but has no regrets living in Tel Aviv, which he describes as the most dynamic city he has encountered.

Josephs is a volunteer coordinator for the project and according to him it is “a win-win situation” for both sides.

“Our Safta comes from Romania,” he says. “Her name is Tony Fishman and she is in her mid 80s and not in good health. I come to visit her with another volunteer from Spain.

She says things a Safta would say to her grandchild like ‘aren’t you married yet?’ or she tells me off if she thinks I don’t behave properly. Basically we are there to keep her company; we want her to know there are still people out there who care about her.”

• Find out more at http://www.adoptasafta.com/