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Nursing students at Ramapo College are participating in a new program that allows them to interact with Holocaust victims.

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative – conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey – brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

Ten nursing students, all of them seniors, already have visited Café Europa, a project of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, to meet survivors. They are working with social workers to learn more about each one.

Dr. Riff said that his original idea was to bring survivors together with social work students and faculty from Ramapo. But after screening the film “Prisoner of Her Past” last fall in his Paradigms of Genocide class, he decided to broach the idea to Ms. Burke. The film explores the occurrence of late-onset PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in a seemingly untroubled survivor who raised two children in Skokie, Illinois.

“We quickly set up meetings with Leah Kaufman and Melanie Lester [at JFS North Jersey] as well as with Joan Richards of the nursing program,” Dr. Riff said. “The program basically came about within a half hour.”

Dr. Riff called it a “happy coincidence” that the school’s course in community medicine involves sending students out into the community. He did an orientation for the participating students on February 6.

“Two of the students were in my Holocaust film class so I knew them,” he said. “They were already sensitized.”

The orientation was held at the offices of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne. The nursing students watched “Night and Fog,” the 1955 Holocaust documentary by Alain Resnais, later joining in a discussion on the film.

“I stressed to students that they would encounter survivors with diverse experiences,” Dr. Riff said. “While some will certainly have been in concentration and labor camps, others managed to survive in hiding, including as children, or had found refuge outside Nazi-occupied territory.”

Sally Whitmore, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, spoke to the students about her experiences of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Ms. Lester and JFS’s director, Leah Kaufman, outlined the special needs of Holocaust survivors and reviewed with students the assessment tools they will use in evaluation interviews with clients.

The plan is for students to go with social workers on home visits, including to Daughters of Miriam, assist with intake interviews, and engage with survivors.

Dr. Riff said that loneliness is a frequent characteristic of survivors in their 80s and 90s, “and they may open up with a sympathetic young person. They’re more likely to talk with them than with their own children.”

He hopes that the project eventually will “bring nursing students together with colleagues in Ramapo College’s history program to train and supervise public high school students in conducting structured interviews with Holocaust survivors, leading to a video/oral history end product. Not only would both the high school and college students involved in the project learn firsthand about the Holocaust, develop their critical thinking skills, and help transmit survivors’ experiences to future generations, but they would also develop their capacity for compassion and empathy in interacting with the elderly and people different from themselves.”

Anticipating that as they meet survivors the students might hear disturbing stories, Ms. Burke noted that Ramapo faculty members will “keep a tight rein,” debriefing the students and making it clear that full counseling services are available to them, if necessary.

When they graduate and begin their professional careers, “part of the population they will deal with are Holocaust survivors,” Dr. Riff said. “They’re in our community and in other parts of New Jersey.” And, he said, nurses are likely to encounter people who have survived other instances of genocide, wars, civil turmoil, sexual abuse, and other manmade disasters.

“They often don’t present symptoms until they’re elderly,” he said. “This is a good group to learn with.”

The Gross Center was established in 1980 and became an integral part of Ramapo College in 2001. Before that, it functioned as a separate nonprofit group.

“We still rely on private donations to pay our way,” Dr. Riff said, noting that the college also contributes to the center. In addition to offering lectures and film screenings, twice a year it holds teacher workshops that deal with various aspects of the Holocaust and genocide “to bolster support of the New Jersey mandate on Holocaust education.”

The center is hosting a May 13 workshop, “Echoes and Reflections,” for middle and high school teachers, in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League and the New Jersey State Commission on Holocaust Education.

For her part, the JFS director, Ms. Kaufman, called the program “a terrific idea.” While she and Dr. Riff had spoken for years about collaboration – particularly about exposing high school students to first-hand interviews with survivors – “this happened quickly. We put it together in a few weeks.”

Ms. Kaufman said students already have been matched with survivors, and after first visiting them together with social workers, now continue to see them on a regular basis.

“They seem very enthused,” she said, adding that those students who attended Café Europa readily engaged with the survivors and even helped serve the food and clean up.

Some of the students also have participated in the JFS Holocaust Legacy Program, where the agency “goes into Hebrew schools and works with b’nai mitzvah kids, teaching them how to conduct interviews and sensitizing them to the issues around the Holocaust.” After learning how to conduct themselves, students are matched with survivors and later write a narrative of their interview.

“They also talk about the impact it had on them,” Ms. Kaufman said.

The new collaboration “takes it one more step,” she said. “The interdisciplinary approach is terrific, and the nursing students are exposed to a population that many of them have not had contact with. They develop a sensitivity and awareness of that population.”

“Our social workers are thrilled,” she added. “Many of these survivors are pretty isolated and shut in, especially during the winter. This really addresses the issue of isolation. It’s a friendly visit, but they’re also tuned into particular health needs. If they feel we should know something, they will report it to us.”

Ms. Kaufman is confident that the program will continue and expand, though she said the groups are now looking for grant funding. “This is just a pilot program, to get our feet wet,” she said. “It’s a great partnership.”

She said she wants the community to know that the service is available. She pointed out that “on the heels of increased funding from the Claims Conference, we can now identify more survivors in need of services who have not yet contacted us.”

Ms. Burke said that while the joint initiative began with just 10 seniors, she hopes that it will become a continual program, “part of the seniors’ leadership experience.”

So far, she said, the feedback has been “tremendously positive.

“The students are learning on multiple levels,” she said. “Not only are they learning some of the realities of aging in place, but they’re participating in an interdisciplinary endeavor, going out with social workers and experiencing a team approach.

“They’re also learning the history of the individuals” they meet, she said. “I think it’s magic. It’s a trilogy of learning.”