Sometimes it takes a situation as unforgiving as a pandemic to bring together organizations whose day-to-day missions and outreach often parallel but don’t necessarily intersect. When that intersection does occur, however, the results can be impactful and immediate, with beneficiaries receiving extra measures of concern, care, and empathy.
One instance of just such a fruitful collaboration occurred on March 17 at JCC MetroWest, when organizations of different community interests and responsibilities combined to bring covid vaccines to perhaps the most unique and fragile (and at the same time resilient) subset of the elderly — Holocaust survivors. The supporting cast included Robert Wood Johnson-St. Barnabas and its medical personnel; Essex County health officials and the sheriff’s department; the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest; and Café’ Europa administrators, who all pooled their considerable resources to create a seamless operation that transformed the J’s Steiner Court into a pop-up inoculation center.
Tina Kaplan of West Orange, who runs JCC’s reception desk and arrives at 5 in the morning, knew something special was stirring on St. Patrick’s Day (of all days) when, in addition to early fitness center arrivals, Essex County sheriff’s deputies showed up and began unloading screens, tables, chairs, and signs. “In less than an hour, they had transformed the space into a self-contained vaccine facility able to service five people at a time,” Ms. Kaplan said. “It was amazing.”
Next came the St. Barnabas workers and volunteers, who set up check-in areas and curtained medical stalls, all in the shadow of Steiner Court’s bronze- and stainless-steel wall-hugging sculpture of rising Hebrew letters titled “Le’atid,” or to the future. Artist John Grogan’s 2007 creation rests on a jagged plinth. Each one of its layers of lettering represents succeeding generations building on the achievements of its predecessors. The work perfectly matched the spirit of the event, with a younger generation of volunteers and caregivers paying attention and showing respect to elders who were two (sometimes three) generations removed, and who had survived the unimaginable.
“There were so many people working to be ready for our special guests,” Ms. Kaplan said. “Our staff was asked not to park in the garage so it would be easier for the participants. And our maintenance crew was outside directing the people and even parking some of their cars so they would not have to maneuver.” (The J’s garage is notoriously challenging.)
“The coordination by the agencies enabled us to host this event and not disrupt our membership’s daily routine at the JCC.”
Holocaust survivors from the federation’s multi-county catchment area and beyond began arriving before 10 a.m. Some drove themselves, some were driven by caregivers, and some made arrangements through Jewish Family Service. They all were greeted and escorted to the vaccine site’s waiting area, assisted in checking in, and ushered to one of the curtained stalls for their shots.
“From my vantage point at the reception desk, I could see everything,” Ms. Kaplan said. “When our members asked and were told what was going on, every one of them thought it was so wonderful and felt that same pride that I had.”
By 1 p.m., when the program ended, more than 40 survivors, ranging in age from 82 to 97, had received the one-shot J&J vaccine without complications. Sheriff’s department volunteers broke down the setup and sanitized the area before leaving. (They’ve had considerable practice, running vaccine mega-sites throughout Essex County.) “I looked at the silent, empty lobby and already missed the wonderful, noisy few hours that so many different communities had just shared,” Mrs. Kaplan said. “It was a great day at the J.”
Joshua Cohen, the director of government relations and external affairs for the Jewish Federations of New Jersey, said that the program was not without its challenges and seeming contradictions. “Due to delays in state vaccine allocation and scheduling of the event, the number of individuals needing a vaccine got smaller,” he said. “We had almost 50 people registered, with only a few no-shows. I believe JFS or a family caregiver will continue to work with these clients to navigate the registration process.”
The survivors themselves expressed a range of emotions and aspirations. Fred Heyman was proud to tell the doctor who gave him his injection how his experiences during the Holocaust lead him to devote his life to teaching about being an “upstander.” He thanked the doctor and those around him by handing out “Be an Upstander” business cards.
A couple from Ukraine was grateful to be helped once again by the federation and Jewish Family services, just as they had been when they arrived from the Soviet Union in 1989. And both expressed excitement about the possibility of hugging their great-granddaughters in the coming weeks, after visiting them from afar during the past year. Another couple, survivors from Hungary, recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. And several of the attendees said that without the volunteers’ efforts they would not have received the vaccine because the sign-up process was so daunting and web-centric.
Ilyse Shainbrown, the director of the federation’s Holocaust Education and Newark Initiatives, noted the timing of the outreach — Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Holocaust, will be on April 8. “We had to be part of the mix,” she said. Ms. Shainbrown estimates that approximately 400 Holocaust survivors live in New Jersey, and many of them are in dire need of social services. With RWB-Barnabas initiating the effort, the Governor’s office prioritizing it, Essex County and sheriff’s officers implementing it, and the federation and the JCC hosting it, the program helped meet that need for at least a morning.