By Stacey Dresner
BRIDGEPORT – You may not have heard of The Blue Card.
In fact, most people may not be familiar with the New York-based organization, which provides financial and other forms of aid to needy Holocaust survivors.
But last week representatives from The Blue Card came to Connecticut to lead special trauma-care training for staff of Jewish Senior Services (JSS) in Bridgeport that focused on caring for local Holocaust survivors.
More than 50 JSS employees, as well as staff from the Elaine and James Schoke Jewish Family Service of Fairfield County and other local senior resident centers participated in the Dec. 4 training session, held at Jewish Senior Services.
The training session, says Andrew Banoff, CEO of Jewish Senior Services, “is a well-researched and well-thought out program that teaches essentially how to deal with trauma victims.”
And taking care of Holocaust survivors, who may still be dealing with the often cataclysmic trauma they suffered decades ago, is of vital importance to agencies like Jewish Senior Services and Jewish Family Service.
“It’s [dealing with] stressful issues that might not happen in a typical individual, in terms of memories that evoke horrible reactions and fear,” Banoff explains. “Clearly, it’s important to know how to respond. To get some additional tools to deal with that is wonderful.”
Blue Card Executive Director Masha Pearl added that Holocaust survivors may have a particular distrust of medical professionals.
“Much of the trauma that they endured was at the hands of doctors and people in power. And this has created a lasting fear of going to medical professionals and seeking any kind of help,” she says. “Also coming to a doctor or dentist with a medical need at that time was seen as a sign of weakness and something that put people at risk. Because of that survivors have long neglected medical issues. We have heard from survivors who are unable to eat due to neglected dental care.
“Essentially this program is aimed at medical professionals being trained in how to recognize the trigger signs, especially if they are not forthright in coming forward as a Holocaust survivor, and how to create a comfortable atmosphere, starting with when they call to make an appointment. [The medical professionals] learn about the importance of keeping appointment times and keeping survivors in the loop – making them a part of the treatment.”
Earlier this year, Pearl was guest speaker at the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County Major Donor Reception, where she spoke about the vital work of The Blue Card.
“I invited her to speak because, among other things, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) helps to fund the Blue Card,” says David Weisberg, CEO of the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County. “I knew that many of my constituents had never heard of The Blue Card before, so it was an opportunity to introduce them to something new.”
The Blue Card was formed in Germany right after the end of World War II to come to the aid of survivors.
“Our primary mission is to provide financial assistance to needy Holocaust survivors in the United States,” says Pearl. “Currently, we are helping survivors in 35 states. We work with over 155 Jewish Family Service agencies that refer local Holocaust survivors in need to us for either emergency or cash assistance, ongoing financial assistance, and supplementary programs, such telephone emergency response systems, grants for holidays and summer vacations.”
The Blue Card received a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America for this two-year training program. It began last year with training sessions for dentists, teaching them how to treat survivors, who may not have had critical dental work done in many years.
“This year, we focused on medical professionals and medical staff – nurses, doctors and intake personnel on recognizing the special and unique needs and trauma of Holocaust survivors. And this has been a tremendously successful program,” Pearl says.
Weisberg learned about the trauma-training program when speaking to Pearl before her appearance in Fairfield earlier this year.
“She told me at the time that they were only doing the program in New York and New Jersey and that she would love for it to be expanded to Connecticut at some point.”
Weisberg didn’t waste any time making a shidduch – a match – between The Blue Card and Jewish Senior Services.
“Thirty minutes later I had a meeting with Andrew Banoff, CEO of Jewish Senior Services and told him about this program, and five minutes after that the two of us were on the phone with Masha and that was it,” Weisberg says.
Neither Weisberg nor Banoff can say how many Holocaust survivors reside in Fairfield County.
“[At Jewish Senior Services] there are about a half-dozen survivors,” Banoff said. “There is not a huge number anymore, but obviously, historically, it had been much larger. But it’s a broader category than just those who are Holocaust survivors. The concept is dealing with individuals who are victims of tremendous trauma.”
The one-hour Blue Card training session was done “essentially as a Lunch and Learn,” said Banoff, who explained that the concise timeframe is a function of the professional population The Blue Card trains.
The training sessions “were originally designed for New York, the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the country, so they are very often doing it in hospitals and other settings where people don’t have long periods of time. It really is a one-hour training,” he says.
Running the training were two individuals, a program manager who provided a power-point presentation with background information about Holocaust survivors and a psychologist, Dr. Eva Fogelman, a leading expert on the trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors. The medical professionals attending were able to seek more information during a question and answer period. The Blue Card also provides a webinar on their website and other training materials.
Banoff said that the JSS team that attended were “staff that is responsible for clinical oversight of the care that is provided, so its nurses, social workers, physicians, dietary staff, administrative people – anybody in leadership who deals with individuals on a care basis. Then we invited a number of partner agencies including folks from JFS and the Federation and some of the other senior living communities – others who could potentially have the same population that they are serving.”
“The Blue Card does very effective work and have really flown below the radar in doing that work,” Weisberg says. “For that reason, we’re really grateful for the opportunity to facilitate this partnership so the important training they are able to do isn’t just limited to major metropolitan areas such as New York but here in Connecticut as well where we certainly have a population that can benefit from this kind of care.”