Caring for the Mental Health of Holocaust Survivors and Their Families

Jewish Family Services (JFS) supports the Jewish community in Greater Hartford with programming and social services for those in need. As part of this mission, JFS is honored to provide support for Holocaust survivors living in the Greater Hartford area and beyond through their Holocaust Survivors Program. This program helps aging survivors remain in their own home or apartment for as long as possible. To that end, JFS offers survivors emergency assistance with unexpected expenses, as well as ongoing assistance with the cost of home care. In the below article, Elisabeth Kostin, JFS director of development, describes the mental-health support JFS extends to these treasured members of our community, as they and their families manage the generational trauma inflicted by the Holocaust.

As a social-service provider, Jewish Family Services (JFS) offers culturally responsive basic-needs support, mental-health counseling, and homecare support for 156 Holocaust survivors living in Greater Hartford alone—and 248 survivors statewide. Using a trauma-informed approach, JFS helps Holocaust survivors process their past experiences, age comfortably in their homes, and overcome the triggering experiences of pandemic-related disruption and loss. This year, JFS added a new initiative that provides Uniper isolation-reducing devices for Holocaust survivors and fully supports them as they integrate this technology into their lives, helping survivors make virtual connections from the comfort of their homes.

Reflecting our commitment to survivor’s mental health, back in late June, JFS hosted a community conversation exploring the mental-health challenges that often face Holocaust survivors and their families. The panel discussion, entitled “Holocaust Survivor Mental Well-Being,” featured opening remarks by JFS Board Member Gayle Temkin, followed by a conversation moderated by Stuart Abrams, a Voices of Hope board member and teacher of genocide studies, psychology, and human-rights education at Avon High School. Abrams led the conversation with panelists Dr. Lois Berkowitz, Elaine Sandler, Erica Kapiloff, and Dr. Leon Chameides—who is himself a Holocaust survivor. Elaine Sandler brought a unique perspective as the daughter of a JFS client, as did Erica Kapiloff, who serves as senior case manager for JFS’s Holocaust Survivor Program. The panel discussed what it means to return to life after tragedy, and how recent events affect the well-being of those who have already endured so much. During this program, we shined a light on the ways we find hope as individuals and as a community, and how we can support each other in times of tragedy.

Dr. Berkowitz, a member of the Voices of Hope board of directors, explained how community members can support the mental health of trauma sufferers, including Holocaust survivors. “[You can] say something like, ‘I can’t begin to understand what that was like for you,’ because you can’t. Accept that they don’t want to talk. Keep checking in. […] The big thing that people and trauma survivors need is a community. They need people around them,” she said, as quoted recently in the “Hartford Courant.”

JFS CEO Katie Hanley underscored the impetus in caring for the Holocaust surviors in our midst. “This population, with their history of trauma, has unique perspectives and stories to tell,” she said. “When we come together to learn about the mental-health needs of survivors in our community, we can make a difference […] Together, we can fight this mental-health crisis.”

This community conversation was held in partnership with Voices of Hope and hosted at Beth El Temple. Click here to watch the full event on YouTube. To watch past community conversations, visit the JFS website.

JFS is grateful for ongoing support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, which ensures JFS can provide direct services to Holocaust survivors and raise awareness about the impact of social isolation on this population’s mental health.

Photo: Panelist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Leon Chameides