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Survivor initiative to thrive on common cents

by Jared Sichel, Staff Writer

April 3, 2013 | 2:30 pm

The Six Million Coins tzedakah box. Photo courtesy of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks

The Six Million Coins tzedakah box. Photo courtesy of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks

Sixty-eight years after being liberated from the horrors of the Holocaust, many aging survivors are living another nightmare — poverty without hope.

“Every single one of them came to this country destitute, with zero resources, and had to start from the beginning,” Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education said in an interview. And although “some have lived the American dream,” Smith added, “it’s only a very small minority that are able to achieve that.”

Many survivors lack money to pay for the most basic needs, including food, housing, medical bills, legal bills or some combination of these. But, as Smith pointed out, living through the Holocaust made many of them survival-oriented and independent, meaning that they may not ask for help, even if they are desperately in need. “If you don’t have the support of the community around you, [if it] doesn’t understand the depth of your experience, you become very lonely.”

So Smith is among a group of community leaders and organizations trying to send a message to survivors who are financially struggling: “We want to support you in your old age and let you know that you are cared for by everyone,” he said.

To that end, the Shoah Foundation has joined an effort organized by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles called the “Six Million Coins” initiative, an innovative project hoping to engage people from throughout the region to contribute funds — in small and large sums — for struggling Holocaust survivors. 

The project, which aims to collect 6 million coins in specially designed tzedakah boxes, will be introduced at a Yom HaShoah commemoration at Mount Sinai Simi Valley on April 7.

Mount Sinai hopes to distribute 25,000 tzedakah boxes across Southern California before Yom HaShoah next year, according to general manager Len Lawrence, who came up with the idea for the initiative. Lawrence said the plan is to collect enough coins to honor each of the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Anyone can request a tzedakah box for free at the initiative’s Web site (sixmillioncoins.org). Each box, Lawrence said, comes with five coins adding up to 18 cents, which is also the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for life.

The coins are attached to a card, and Lawrence’s hope is that when people remove those coins and place them in the small box, they will become the first of many that they drop in. With 25,000 boxes, Mount Sinai would be providing 125,000 coins toward the final tally, adding up to $4,500.

A virtual counter on the bottom of the initiative’s homepage indicates that even before the official kick-off, Mount Sinai, which also has a memorial park and mortuary in the Hollywood Hills, already had collected more than 115,000 coins, adding up to $1,150 (100 pennies per dollar donated online) as of April 1. Anyone can make a donation online or deliver their coins to Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location.

All of the proceeds will be handled by Federation and distributed to six different charities, five of which support survivors who need financial assistance. The other — the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous — does the same for non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, usually at great personal risk. 

Although Lawrence’s goal is to reach 6 million coins, he emphasized that Mount Sinai is “not going to stop” if there is a demand for this initiative once the 6 million goal is reached.

“As long as there are survivors who need help, Mount Sinai will keep supplying tzedakah boxes” to people who want them, Lawrence said.

The USC Shoah Foundation, established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994, collects video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. Smith said he has personally interviewed numerous survivors who are currently in financial distress. A 2008 study by Federation estimated about 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in the Los Angeles area, about half of whom are low-income or poor. 

“The truth is many survivors are struggling,” said Jay Sanderson, Federation president and CEO. “This particular tzedakah box is going to help those survivors in need.”

At the April 7 event, beginning at 10 a.m. at Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location, Lawrence will unveil an 8-foot-tall tzedakah box, in which people can place money, including the coins collected in their personal tzedakah boxes.

The ceremony will be followed by a Yom HaShoah memorial service. A noon ceremony, to be streamed live on the initiative’s Web site, will include a reading of some of the names of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, followed by a 2 p.m. roundtable panel discussing the work of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Andrew Stevens, a Holocaust survivor who assisted Wallenberg’s efforts, will make an appearance.

Mount Sinai also will provide a 4-foot-tall tzedakah box for public use. It will travel across Southern California to schools, synagogues and other organizations that want to host name-reading commemorations. Synagogues as far south as Santa Ana and as far north as Sacramento have scheduled ceremonies. 

Of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, about 4 million names are known. Lawrence hopes that every one of them will be read during the lifespan of this initiative. He said that Mount Sinai “will set up at any place, at any organization that wants to read names,” providing the 4-foot tzedakah box, the list of names and any other needed equipment.

Joining Mount Sinai and Federation and the Shoah Foundation in organizing and promoting the initiative is TRIBE Media Corp., which publishes the Jewish Journal. 

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