By Deb Silverthorn
Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas launched its Older Adult Holocaust Survivor Care program in the first week of March 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown halted many programs. But the work of clinical psychologist Yaffa Podbilewicz-Weinberg, Ph.D., has touched lives in a season when touching has been off limits for many.
As the Jan. 27 commemoration of International Holocaust Day nears, Podbilewicz-Weinberg and the JFS team hope to engage with survivors they’ve yet to meet in person.
“This position is one in a lifetime — a match made in heaven,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg, whose work is supported by a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America: Center for Aging and Trauma. While she has been able to conduct some meetings in person, most of her services in the last two years were provided by telephone and video platforms that are compliant with privacy laws. “Not everyone has a computer,” she said. “A client might be blind, hard of hearing or have a speech impediment. It’s been a huge adjustment but we’re here, we’re adapting and we’re still providing compassionate care.”
As the definition of Holocaust survivor varies, JFS uses the broadest definition as identified by national Jewish and government organizations. One of those organizations, the nonprofit Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), secures material compensation for Holocaust survivors around the world.
The 2020 reauthorization of the Older Americans Act added Person Centered Trauma Informed (PCTI) care to their objectives, and Holocaust survivors were included in the efforts of outreach efforts. This was happening just as Podbilewicz-Weinberg took her post.
“It’s our job to identify as many as need our help, connecting those not yet involved with our community, to synagogues or the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg. The identification process involves serving those who came from Europe and those who survived under the communist regime of the former Soviet Union, some of whom might have been used to hiding their Judaism. “We are meeting people all the time and we don’t want to leave anyone without help,” she added.
In addition to helping first-generation survivors, JFS provides services to their caregivers, including spouses and children, to benefit the clients’ quality of life. Called “wraparound services,” additional help includes case management, counseling, assistance with home care, medical equipment, limited financial assistance and help with compensation application. The goal of the program is to help seniors remain in their own homes and age in place.
“Based on need, we’ve been able to provide walkers and dentures, bath chairs, bed rails, hearing aids and glasses, and with our new transport van, we can get clients to medical appointments. We even helped a client with cardiac concerns repair their air conditioning,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg, who communicates fluently with clients in English, Spanish and Hebrew while expanding her Yiddish and Russian vocabulary. “I also provide psychological counseling. I help with depression, anxiety, medical adherence, sleep problems, pain management and more, but a client does not need to have psychological counseling to receive other help from us.”
Additionally, JFS has just begun the second year of a two-year grant providing the Uniper Care platform. Developed in Israel, Uniper provides live interactive programming and more than 800 recorded programs of entertainment, education, exercise and more. The HIPAA-compliant platform, which integrates internet-based telehealth services delivered to the client’s television, iPad or computer at no cost to the user, is provided by a grant from the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies through JFNA.
Prior to Podbilewicz-Weinberg’s joining JFS, the organization had identified 17 survivors under its care. In the last 20 months, 59 clients have received services, from information and referral to complete JFS wraparound support.
“We’ve provided services to survivors since 1998 and it has always been important,” said Debi Weiner, who as senior director of Older Adult Services helped create and initiate the program before retiring Dec. 31. “We have now increased our services and our outreach is helping identify prospective clients. Yaffa is nothing less than incredible and our whole team, staff and volunteers, make it happen.”
Deborah Leibensberger, celebrating 20 years supporting JFS’ older adults, was recently named director of that department and, following Weiner’s lead, she recognizes the depth of its offerings.
“Yaffa has taken the program and run with it. She’s worked hard to identify those we’ve not reached before and we are gaining momentum every day,” said Leibensberger. “Her kindness and her talent in clinical skills are meeting the needs and easing this time of such isolation for so many.”
Lily Linetsky’s family immigrated to the United States in 1978 with her brother, Roman, and mother Shayna, now of blessed memory. Her father, who was wounded in a battle near Leningrad, died of his injuries in 1943. The family affiliated with JFS not long after their arrival and appreciated many kinds of support. Years later, Linetsky’s sister-in-law worked as JFS’ controller for 27 years and Linetsky herself volunteered for more than 35 years. Now, as a client of JFS, she meets with Podbilewicz-Weinberg and uses a Uniper unit. She enjoys its Shabbat services and exercise classes.
“Yaffa couldn’t be more sincere or nice. I can be completely open with her. Emotionally, physically, in so many ways and especially during this time when you can’t get out to be with people it matters so much,” she said. “I’ve never forgotten how JFS helped us when we first arrived and I always promised to return the help when I could. When I had time and money to give, I did. Now, I’m again grateful for the support.”
Nathan Shturman immigrated to Fort Worth from the former Soviet Union at age 16 with his brother Edward and parents Fira and Victor, both of blessed memory.
Shturman says when his mother became ill, he reached out to the JFS older adults program. While she was under Podbilewicz-Weinberg’s care for only a few months before her passing last year, their relationship was important and meaningful, supportive and kind. Shturman, himself disabled due to illness, now receives JFS’ services including care under Podbilewicz-Weinberg, use of the Uniper system and weekly calls from a Friendly Visitor volunteer of JFS.
“Yaffa is a people person and what she shares is important for anyone, every human being,” he said. “She’s like eyes for a blind person, bringing help in so many ways.”
In addition, Shturman enjoys learning about Judaism, an in-person shofar blowing outside his home last fall and, like many clients, appreciates receiving holiday bags and greetings.
“Uniper is like a window to the world. I can ‘meet’ with Yaffa or I can watch Yiddish programming that reminds me of my childhood home. There’s exercise and music and almost anything you can imagine,” said Shturman. “For someone home almost all the time, JFS and Yaffa have brought so much in.”
“The important thing is to keep finding the survivors whom we can help; we know there are more,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg. She also expressed gratitude — in addition to the national organizational support — to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum and Holocaust survivor support programs of The Blue Card, KAVOD, Selfhelp Community Services and many individual donors and volunteers. “One client tells a friend who tells another or more — and we have the blessing to help. That is why we’re here.”
For details of the program, or to contact Yaffa Podbilewicz-Weinberg, visit jfsdallas.org/services/older-adults/#holocaust, call 972-437-9950 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.