Unique Partnership Provides Dental Care for Holocaust Survivors

Like many Holocaust survivors, Larisa and Anatoly Rabinovich suffered from a lack of food and medical care as children. The impact on their health lasted a lifetime, including problems with their teeth and gums. After years without proper oral healthcare, the Sussex County couple is receiving treatment at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine as part of a program for Holocaust survivors developed through a partnership between the school and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Anatoly, 84, is having extensive work that includes dental implants. Larisa, 80, will be getting dentures. They were referred to this unique program by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ.

“It’s so important to have good teeth. If you can’t chew right, you can’t eat food properly,’’ said Larisa. “Both of us are very grateful to the staff for the excellent job that they have done and for their attention and kindness. We appreciate it very much.”

Federation is a recipient of two Jewish Federations of North American Critical Supports Grants to meet the needs of Holocaust survivors in Greater MetroWest (as well as an Expanded Critical Supports Grant to serve Holocaust survivors and other older adults with a history of trauma). The Leadership Council established to identify the pressing needs of this community was determined to address the longstanding challenge of dental care for survivors. The grant funds were not sufficient to cover every need, so it needed to find creative ways to get the job done. In the fall 2019, Federation put out a call to regional dentists for providers who would care for Holocaust survivors at no cost. It was also important to find facilities that are suited to care for elderly patients with special needs.

RSDM faculty Dr. Howard Drew, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, answered the call and created a fund to establish a program at RSDM. “My wife, Ina, and I thought this program would serve two invaluable purposes — to honor the legacy of my parents—my 95-year-old mom is still alive and well—and fellow Holocaust survivors, and to give our students, residents, and faculty the chance to care for a very deserving and underserved population.”

Federation and its partner agency Jewish Family Service of Central NJ trained a core program “dream team” in Person-Centered Trauma-Informed Care (PCTI). PCTI is an approach to care that acknowledges that any trauma experienced in the course of an individual’s lifetime is likely to impact that individual as s/he ages. The PCTI training included discussion about the unique needs of and stresses of survivors. This training is a requirement of the JFNA grant.

The survivors are treated by a team of dental students, residents and faculty. Patients are assigned a “navigator” who guides them through the RSDM treatment process, in addition to a comprehensive oral exam, complete with x-rays, and a treatment plan tailored to individual needs. Federation is also working with the KAVOD SHEF Initiative in partnership with Seed the Dream Foundation and KAVOD, to meet emergency unmet direct needs of Holocaust survivors as a secondary resource through a matching funds program with Federation. KAVOD SHEF funds are available to cover unmet emergency transportation expenses for those survivors in need of dental care but who are not able to provide their own transportation.

As the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Drew has a deep understanding of both their suffering and resilience. His own parents, who met after WWII, were sent to a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before they were liberated. His mother, who was 13 when she was taken to the camps, believes bonds among herself and her sisters empowered them to survive after their mother died in the gas chambers. All of them stayed together during the Holocaust and lived to see liberation.

Both Drew’s parents were so grateful to have survived and to be able to build a new life in the U.S. and didn’t express anger or bitterness about their ordeal. “Despite the suffering my parents endured, they chose to see the world as a positive place. Their focus has always been family and to lead a life where you give more than you receive.”

According to Drew, treating the survivors has been a valuable experience for faculty and students. “It’s really beautiful to watch the interaction between a Holocaust survivor and a Rutgers student. One has so much wisdom to share and the other so much potential and promise to do good for our future generations.”

Dental student David Dadoun said that much of his time treating one of the survivors, a recent widow, involves just listening and keeping her company. “I let her speak and I know when to be quiet. Her strength is really remarkable,’’ said Dadoun. “Working with her has refocused me on what’s important. So much of dentistry is just talking to people and listening.”

If you or someone you know is a Holocaust survivor who would like to find out more about this unique program, reach out directly to the dedicated RSDM patient navigator at (973) 972-5304. Holocaust survivors who would like to learn about other services and/or benefits and reparations that may be available to them can contact Jewish Family Service of MetroWest at (973) 637-1715 (English) or (973) 637-1716 (Russian) if they live in Essex, Morris, or Sussex County and Jewish Family Service of Central NJ at (908) 352-8375 if they live in Union or Somerset County.

The need for pro bono dental services for Holocaust survivors was recognized through the work of the Leadership Council convened by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ pursuant to grants received from the JFNA Center on Aging and Trauma. While the program at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine is funded by a generous donor, approximately 67% of the JFNA grant to Federation comes from federal sources and 33% from non-federal sources.