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July 23, 2009

Bet Tzedek Wins Pro Bono Award

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/bet_tzedek_wins_pro_bono_award_20090722

Mitchell A. Kamin, Bet Tzedek president and CEO

Mitchell A. Kamin, Bet Tzedek president and CEO

When some “2,500 young and fashionable professionals” dance this Saturday night during the Bet Tzedek Justice Ball at the Hollywood Palladium, they will have something extra to celebrate.

The American Bar Association has just announced that Bet Tzedek Legal Services has been selected for a 2009 Pro Bono Publico (for the public good) Award, the legal profession’s highest recognition for public service.

This honor recognizes the Los Angeles-based free law agency that serves the poor, elderly and disabled, for establishing the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, an international initiative to help survivors obtain reparation payments from the German government.

Considered the largest pro bono program of its kind in U.S. history, the Justice Network is the first nationally coordinated effort to assure that aging survivors receive the reparations to which they are entitled.

Creation of the network was triggered 18 months ago by a new, and perhaps final, reparations initiative, the German Ghetto Work Payment Program.

It applies to a little-known class of Jews who worked in the Nazi-run ghettos of Eastern Europe on a “voluntary” or “at will” basis. Such “volunteers” were compensated by meager payments or an extra loaf of bread and may have had little actual choice in that they wanted to survive, but they were differentiated from forced laborers.

Eligible survivors, last year estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 worldwide, can receive a one-time payment of 2,000 euros, approximately $2,800. The payment may appear small, but can make a big difference to survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, of whom more than 25 percent live below the poverty line.

With lengthy experience in aiding survivors, Bet Tzedek was quickly on top of the intricacies of the ghetto work program but realized that there were many other American cities without such expertise.

Out of such considerations grew the Justice Network, begun through a partnership between Bet Tzedek and the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, with the firm’s senior attorney, Stanley W. Levy, helming the effort on a volunteer basis.

From a standing start 18 months ago, the Justice Network has now established operations in 31 cities in the United States and Canada, and two more in Australia.

Mitchell A. Kamin, Bet Tzedek’s president and CEO, cited additional impressive statistics. The network has enlisted 3,600 attorneys, paralegals and other legal experts from 100 law firms and corporate legal departments, complemented by professionals from more than 30 Jewish social service agencies. In Los Angeles, partners include the Righteous Persons Foundation and the Jewish Community Foundation.

The volunteers have donated an estimated 45,000 hours interviewing about 5,000 survivors and filing some 3,000 claims worth approximately $8 million in potential reparation payments.

In sharp contrast to some previous reparation programs, practically all applications so far have been approved by the German government.

The manpower involved in the project varies from city to city, according to the size of its survivor population.

In New York, with the largest concentration of survivors outside Israel, some 900 legal professionals conduct weekly clinics throughout the five boroughs and have so far screened and assisted 1,675 survivors.

By contrast, in Omaha, Neb., one lawyer, Robert Cohen, has taken responsibility for the city’s 26 resident survivors, even personally chauffeuring them to their appointments.

For many of the participating lawyers, the project has been their first encounter with survivors and the most fulfilling assignments of their careers, said Manatt attorney Levy.

The Pro Bono Publico Awards will be presented to Bet Tzedek, and to four law firms for separate projects, on Aug. 3 at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in Chicago.

Back to the July 25 Justice Ball, which has been rated by publications expert in these things as “an evening of music, dance and hot summer fun” and “ the coolest thing to do in town.”

The evening’s headliner is DJ AM, aka Adam Goldstein, billed as one of the world’s premier turntable artists and the host of a new reality show on MTV.

This will be the 13th annual Justice Ball, and it is expected to raise $400,000 for Bet Tzedek’s free services.

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