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‘Six Million Coins’ pays it forward

by Jared Sichel, Contributing Writer

April 10, 2013 | 1:12 pm

Children place coins in the 8-foot-tall ­tzedakah box at Mount Sinai Simi Valley. Photo courtesy of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

Children place coins in the 8-foot-tall ­tzedakah box at Mount Sinai Simi Valley. Photo courtesy of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

Ori Rabinovitch, a fourth-grader at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, remembers how he recently met an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who could barely hear him — and who could not afford to buy a hearing device. 

It bothered the 10-year-old that this man could not, in effect, afford to hear. That’s when he remembered that Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries recently gave tzedakah boxes to Harkham Hillel students to collect money for Holocaust survivors in need.

It was part of the “Six Million Coins” initiative by Mount Sinai and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to collect 6 million coins over the next year for survivors in need. It was officially introduced April 7 during a Yom HaShoah commemoration event at Mount Sinai Simi Valley, during which Ori spoke.

About 500 people from across Southern California attended the event, including a number of local residents forever linked to the death camps. One of them was Sue Strom of Lancaster, whose parents, Moishe and Tzivia Kornblit, met in Auschwitz. Strom couldn’t hold back tears as she placed the coins she had collected into a coin counter and then into an 8-foot-tall tzedakah box that will be at Mount Sinai Simi Valley for at least the next year. She also wrote a check to help those in need.

“My father felt that he defeated Hitler because he survived, and he survived long enough to have children,” Strom said. 

Survivor Michael Mark was born in Czechoslovakia in 1925 and lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust. He survived five concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Sally. He was joined at the commemoration by his wife; daughter Barbara; and grandchildren Erin and Kevin — three generations in all.

“I didn’t talk about it for 40 years,” Mark said. 

But now, he tries to never turn down a speaking invitation. He said that while he has lived the American dream, there are other survivors whose lives are far from ideal —elderly Jews who struggle to pay for medicine, food, housing and other basic needs.

“We know there are too many, no question,” he said.

A 2008 study by Federation estimated that about half of the 10,000 to 12,000 survivors living in the L.A. area are living under or just above the poverty line, which, for an individual, is set by the federal government at $11,490.

Thousands of small tzedakah boxes are being distributed for free by Mount Sinai as part of “Six Million Coins,” and so far more than 1 million coins have been collected, according to Federation. (Any coin given directly is counted as a single coin, regardless of value; any online donation given at sixmillioncoins.org is converted into pennies.)

Mount Sinai general manager Len Lawrence decided last year that it was time for a Yom HaShoah ceremony and initiative that not only remembered those who the Nazis murdered, but also those who survived and now need help. All proceeds will be distributed by Federation to six charities, five of which assist Holocaust survivors in financial need and one that assists those who worked to save Jewish lives but now find themselves relying on the generosity of others. 

Joining Mount Sinai and Federation in promoting “Six Million Coins” are the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education, and TRIBE Media Corp., which publishes the Jewish Journal.

As part of the April 7 event, participants also kicked off an initiative to read the names of those who didn’t survive. For hours, participants stepped to a podium and read 10 names from a card, always ending with “Unknown,” to represent the 1.5 million Jews whose names were lost along with their lives in the Holocaust.

Lawrence’s goal is for enough people to volunteer just a couple of minutes of their time over the coming year to help read the 4.5 million recorded names of those killed. Lawrence said that any organization that wishes to host a ceremony to read names will receive assistance from Mount Sinai, including a portable 4-foot tzedakah box that will travel across California to every name-reading ceremony. 

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino talked to attendees about the importance of remembering names and not only the number 6 million. He told the story of a woman, Chana Goldberg, who was taken from her home in Paris by the Nazis, sent to a transit camp and eventually to her death at Auschwitz. But in the cattle car on the way to Auschwitz, she wrote a letter to her mother.

“I know that you are worried for me. I know that you can’t [move] forward with your life,” she wrote. “But don’t worry. Please mama, don’t worry. You taught me to be strong.”

Goldberg put the letter in the envelope, tied a stone to it, and tossed the envelope from the cattle car. It eventually found its way to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where it sat in a warehouse for 60 years until it was eventually connected with a file containing more information about her life.

“Now we can tell a eulogy, a story, about a soul, a human being. Now she has a name, and a face, and a character,” Feinstein said emphatically. “We will create a dossier, a file, on every one of the 6 million. We will do what the Nazis took away. We will give them back their names.” 

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