Loneliness is a plague that affects many elderly residents in New York and throughout America – and for Holocaust survivors, the feeling of being alone in old age can be particularly acute. That’s why Sheva Tauby and her husband Rabbi Tzvi Tauby launched iVolunteer – an organization that pairs young volunteers with Holocaust survivors for weekly home visits – in 2007.
In just a few years, iVolunteer has already made a significant impact on both the lives of volunteers as well as survivors. The volunteers spend time talking with the survivors – hearing their stories, and also simply providing companionship. They also help the survivors with everyday tasks, from shopping to gaining new skills on the computer. These inter-generational interactions provide comfort and often result in close and meaningful friendships. Last week, Sheva took some time to share more about the program and how people can get involved.
What sort of impact have you seen since iVolunteer launched in 2007.
It has really been tremendous and far-reaching. Most survivors are sole-survivors, meaning their parents and siblings did not make it. Many don’t have kids, or don’t have close relationships with their children, so it is incredibly important for them to feel like they have a regular support system. The volunteers spend time talking with them, but also help them in practical ways like going shopping with them or helping them go through their bills.
Who typically volunteers?
Our average volunteer age is 28, and they come from all different backgrounds, both Jews and non-Jews, and Jewish affiliations across the board. We have volunteers who work in fashion, we have a financial officer for Exxon Mobile, doctors, real estate brokers – we even have a Harvard medical professor. She lives in New York and commutes every week to Boston, but still makes the time to do this.
Recently, we had a volunteer start who is not Jewish. She’s 22 and originally from the Dominican Republic, and literally knew nothing about the Holocaust. No movies, no understanding of what happened in the camps – no familiarity. I asked her, “What is your interest in doing this?” She said that she grew up volunteering with older people in hospitals and old age homes, found us online and thought it sounded like a good match. It’s incredible – and for her this is an important piece of informal education.
What sort of training do volunteers go through?
Every volunteer has an hour and a half training before they start working with a survivor. They learn about what survivors went through, how it impacts them now even if they are 90 years old, and how to relate to them. We have psychologists on our board who have helped develop the training. This is an emotionally challenging thing to take on, but the typical person applying to be a volunteer is typically pretty compassionate and emotionally available.
Why did you decide to go with the sustained service model, where volunteers visit every week?
Giving a steady visitor experience to the survivor is part of the program’s goal. It is really all about creating a sense of comfort and stability for them, so having someone who the survivor knows will come back week after week is critical.
Do most survivors live in New York City?
No – there are about 5,000 in New York City, and 15,000 in Florida. Los Angeles also has a significant community. We are actually in the works of starting a Florida-based branch if iVolunteer.
How do you find the survivors to work with?
We mostly find them through social workers, referrals (there’s a referral link on their site) and word of mouth. It can be tricky though – a lot of survivors are resistant to help, though some are very open to it.
How can people get involved?
If they are interested in volunteering, they can sign up through our site. People can also donate directly through the site. My husband and I run this organization full time and all of our funding comes from individual donors – we really depend on it. People can donate to the general program, or they can also sponsor specific things like buying a computer for a survivor or sponsoring a night out for a survivor and volunteer, for them to relax and have fun. (Click here to make a donation.)
Check out the following video created by a volunteer in honor of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance day, which took place last month on January 27, 2011.