Coming full circle

Coming full circle

Abe Foxman joins Met Council initiative to bring food to Holocaust survivors

Above and below, volunteers for the Met Council pack food that will be delivered to Holocaust survivors. (Met Council)
Above and below, volunteers for the Met Council pack food that will be delivered to Holocaust survivors. (Met Council)

The coronavirus has laid bare many structural problems in our lives, Abraham Foxman of Bergen County said (and the corroborating evidence all around us makes clear).

We can hide, but the devastation around us shows the cracks.

But if there’s anyone who always has hope, it’s Mr. Foxman. Now, he’s putting that hope to work. Five years after he retired from his 50-year career at the Anti-Discrimination League, most of them at its helm, he’s taking on a new job.

“I’m coming full circle,” he said; he’s now leading the national initiative as national chair of the Holocaust survivor program for the Met Council. (To be more formal — almost no one is — the Manhattan-based organization is the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.)

“One of the things that the pandemic made clear is the vulnerability of a certain part of our community,” Mr. Foxman said. “That was the Holocaust survivors. Many of them” — estimates say a stunning 40 percent of them — “live under the poverty line; they used to go to food kitchens but they can’t anymore.” As covid-19 rages, the survivors, elderly by definition and often in poor health given the monstrosity and deprivation of their early lives, have to stay at home. Even if they could go out, “many of them keep kosher, and a lot of the emergency food kitchens that were set up were not kosher.

“So the Met Council reached out to me and asked if I’d consider working on the special campaign, and I said yes.

(Met Council)

“Look, there is a lot that we can’t do for survivors,” Mr. Foxman said. “We can’t repair their pain. We can’t repair their anxieties.” Most certainly, no committee can repair their memories or their nightmares. “There are a lot of things that are beyond our ability to fix.

“But we can make sure that they never go hungry again. That is within our ability to take care of.”

The Met Council now provides food to about 1,200 survivors. “We want to reach out to at least 10,000,” Mr. Foxman said. “Estimates say that there are anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 survivors in the tristate area.”

Mr. Foxman wants to take on this work because it is important, a true manifestation of Jewish values, but he also has a very real personal connection to it. “It is closing the circle for me,” he said.

“I started as a survivor, and now I am finishing my public service on behalf of survivors.” Mr. Foxman is 80; he was born in Poland, his well-off parents’ only child. The Fuksmans — Joseph and Helen and baby Abraham — evaded the Nazis for some time, but then were cornered in the Vilna ghetto. Helen gave her small son to their nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, who raised him for five years, bringing him up as a Catholic, eventually surrendering him to his parents, who survived. Their story is dramatic and heartrending and in the end life-affirming, and it shaped Abraham Foxman’s life, from then until now.

So now, Mr. Foxman said, “I am closing the circle.

(Met Council)

“My nanny risked her life to save me, and my mother risked her life to feed us. Once she escaped from the ghetto, she smuggled and stole to provide food for us, for me and my nanny. She wanted to make sure that we never had a hungry day.

“If I can do even a little bit to make sure that those survivors don’t feel hungry, it will be very meaningful,” he said.

“The survivors are a community that sadly has been neglected, both here and even more in Israel,” he added. “We talk about them. We pay tribute to them. We honor them. But we need to take care of them a little bit more.

“We are talking about a limited number of people, for a limited amount of time. Many of them do not have families. It is not a huge challenge. It can be dealt with.

“I hope to play my part in providing some comfort in the last few years.”

Mr. Foxman’s going to concentrate on fund-raising, but there is another element to the project, and he feels strongly about it. “We hope to connect younger people to the survivors,” he said. “We hope to get them involved with bringing the food to the survivors, and interacting with them. That’s the goal, but for now that’s a luxury.” The Met Council has been delivering food to the survivors; it’s made a deal with Uber for a reduced rate. For now, the drivers are picking the food up from the Met Council’s warehouses and walking it up to the survivors. “Someday soon, we hope to have volunteers doing that,” Mr. Foxman said.

Mr. Foxman walks on railroad tracks to Auschwitz on the March of the Living a few years ago.

Mr. Foxman is vocal about some of the dangers that he sees might threaten the Jewish community. One of those dangers is posed by Louis Farrakhan, who has been spewing anti-Semitic tropes for decades, he said; he had been asked to debate Farrakhan a number of times but always refused because “all Farrakhan wanted to do was talk about his anti-Semitic ideas.” That’s not a true debate, and Mr. Foxman does not think that it’s useful. He’s heartened, though, at the emergence of strong voices in the Black community — particularly the basketball-great-turned-public-intellectual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — that have begun to counter Mr. Farrakhan.

He’s also roiled by cancel culture. “It’s against our culture,” he said. “We believe that to err is human, and to forgive is divine. And those of us who try to make a difference in the world of human relations also believe — and I have always believed — that if you want people to change their hearts and minds, you have to be able to accept their apologies, and you have to believe in the possibility of redemption.

“It’s become very chic in the last few years when if you say something somebody doesn’t like you disappear. There is very little effort to try to rehabilitate. To educate. To bring back. That is very costly to our community.

“We can cancel some very serious, significant people, who have a lot to add. That’s part of the polarization that we see now, not having respect for each other.

“All my life, I have offered the promise of rehabilitation,” Mr. Foxman said. It is important to allow people the chance to speak and to make mistakes and to recover from those mistakes in public; if you do not, “it will be costly, because people will not speak their minds.” That’s a lost opportunity in so many directions.

All of that, though, is abstract. It’s about thought. That’s important, but the extremely concrete work that he’s just undertaken is even more important. “This is about people who need help,” Mr. Foxman said.

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