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Café Hakalah: Reaching out to Holocaust survivors

By Laura Porter

CENTRAL MASS. – Every Wednesday afternoon 20 to 25 people get together at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline to have a nosh, listen to klezmer music or a little jazz, and share some conversation.

Most of them are older adults, but they are connected more by experience than age. They are taking part in Café Hakalah, a social and cultural program intended for Holocaust survivors, run by Jewish Family & Children’s Services.

Under the aegis of JF&CS’s Schechter Holocaust Services, which provides no-cost, confidential assistance to survivors in a variety of areas, the program has been active in Brookline for about 10 years. It began operating three years ago on the North Shore as well, drawing 25 to 30 people.

In both locations, funding comes from the Jewish Federations of North America Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), and private support.

This fall, JF&CS plans to launch Café Hakalah in Central Mass. The new program will be supported by the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. (JFCM) and JF&CS.

“A key goal [of Café Hakalah] is to reduce the social isolation [of survivors of Nazi persecution],” says Lora Tarlin, who directs Schechter Holocaust Services in Waltham. “They might be living alone, or they don’t want to go out for many different reasons. We want to give them a sense of belonging and caring from the Jewish community.”

Twenty-five percent of Holocaust survivors nationwide are living beneath the poverty line, Tarlin notes. That percentage is no doubt the same in Massachusetts, where there are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 survivors.

“We’re excited to bring this vital program to Central Mass.,” says Debra Shrier, director of Community & Program Development in Central Mass. for JF&CS. “It’s important to create opportunities for survivors to connect with each other and to share Jewish culture and traditions.”

The nature of Café Hakalah is informal, meant to offer entertainment and companionship. To that end, says Tarlin, gatherings are designed to “appeal to the interests of the survivors. North Shore has had a Chanukah party every year. We always try to do something for Yom HaShoah.”

On Sept. 26, for example, the Brookline group will celebrate Sukkot and Simchat Torah with a musical program.

At the same time, Tarlin says, the broader goal is to “connect [participants] to the community, to one another, to show them that they’re part of a larger group and they’re not forgotten.”

Certainly, there are survivors living in the Central Mass. area as well, although “some people don’t want to define themselves that way; some don’t even want people to know they’re Jews. They’re traumatized by this, and it isn’t something they really talk about.”

Tarlin’s expectation is that there may be 10 to 12 people in the area interested in participating and they “will know of others.”

Before the program began in the North Shore, JF&CS had “some sense that we had victims of Nazi persecution from the Russian communities,” she says. Many didn’t talk about their experiences, and “they didn’t necessarily know each other’s stories or even know each other.”

Indeed, when Café Hakalah began, several people discovered that they already knew each other through adult day care, though they had had no idea that the others were either Jewish or survivors.

The program has helped to create a community, one of commonality and support.

“They look forward to it,” says Tarlin. “One person said, ‘I feel so safe being Jewish here.’”

At another meeting, the musical group played a song that a participant remembered from her sister’s wedding, the last time that her entire family had been together. Inevitably, hearing it brought back sad memories, but happy ones as well.

For Café Hakalah in Central Mass., which will meet at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, JF&CS has hired a part-time six-hour-a-week coordinator who will begin in early October, after the holidays.

“They will start reaching out, seeing where people are, working with the synagogues and different organizations,” says Tarlin.

She anticipates that the first program, perhaps a Chanukah celebration, will be held by the middle of December.

“At this point, this is a great start. There are still survivors out there, many below poverty level, and this is the time to care for them, to make sure they understand we’re here for them and that we really want to make sure that they have the dignity to live out their lives. It’s our obligation, really. We can’t look back later and say we didn’t do enough.”

CAP: Café Hakalauh, a program of JF&CS, allows survivors to connect and share Jewish culture and traditions.

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