Grantee Highlight: Selfhelp Community Services

Serving the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors

Selfhelp Community Services was founded in 1936 to help Jews fleeing Nazi Germany maintain their independence and start new lives in the United States. Today, the organization serves over 20,000 elderly New Yorkers each year, including the last generation of Holocaust survivors. Selfhelp engaged The Sephardic Foundation on Aging (SFOA) in 2018 to fund its powerful Witness Theater program and has maintained a strong funding relationship to this day. Overall, SFOA has contributed a total of $200,000 in grants, ensuring Selfhelp can continue to serve Holocaust Survivors, the most vulnerable elderly population in the City.

Witnesses to History: 2018-2019

In 2012, Selfhelp launched Witness Theater, an innovative drama therapy program connecting high school students with Holocaust survivors. The process unfolds in weekly sessions throughout the school year culminating in a public performance that dramatizes the survivors’ stories. Students act out the stories while the survivors narrate. A new sense of urgency has surrounded the program in recent years as these are the last living survivors in New York City. “One of the key lessons of Witness Theater is that, by re-enacting the lives of survivors, students are becoming witnesses to history,” says Sandy Myers, Selfhelp VP of External Affairs and Communications. “We only have so many years left to get those accounts.”

students and holocaust survivors performing a play

Impressed with the intergenerational impact of these performances, SFOA provided $75,000 in funding in 2018. The money paid for, among other things, a portion of the salary for Drama Therapists. These individuals are at the core of the program, helping to bring students and survivors together. An additional $75,000 was given in 2019, enabling Selfhelp to take Witness Theater to new heights.

students and holocaust survivors performing a play

“Because of SFOA’s funding, we were able to invest further in the program and reach an even more diverse group of students, including non-Jewish youth,” says Elizabeth Lynn, Selfhelp VP of Advancement and Research. 

Filling the Gaps in Pandemic Relief: 2020

Selfhelp’s services to Holocaust survivors are centered around its Holocaust Survivor Program (HSP) and Intensive Intervention Unit (IIU). With the COVID-19 pandemic making the organization’s typical home visits difficult, SFOA gave Selfhelp an emergency $50,000 grant to support a pivot in services. The majority of those funds went towards IIU’s Guardianship services.

While many of the 5,300 Holocaust survivors in New York City are of stable mind and health, a small portion require a court appointed guardian to safely live alone. These elders are among the most vulnerable in the city, according to Myers. “We are managing every aspect of their affairs so they can stay at home and live out the rest of their lives with dignity,” says Myers. “Without this program, these survivors would fall through the cracks.”

young man helping elderly man use a computer

In addition to this critical service, SFOA’s grant also supported Direct Money Management (DMM) offered through IIU. DMM is provided to clients who are cognitively sound but still need assistance with bill paying, mail sorting, and balancing checkbooks. Currently, these services are provided virtually or by telephone.

An Eternal Legacy

Thanks to SFOA’s support, Lynn says Selfhelp can continue to serve the last generation of Holocaust survivors in New York City and ensure their legacies last a lifetime. “We are so appreciative of SFOA’s funding,” says Lynn.

an elderly man with two young people

Posted July 1, 2021