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Holocaust survivors share their stories over meals with volunteers in an expanding circle of support

Sitting at Yama Sushi and Grill along Lake Mission Viejo, Julie Shulman and Marlene Beach teach Ino Wolff how to eat edamame.

“This is new for me,” the 88-year-old Wolff said after eating a few beans.

As they wait for entrees of sushi and tempura, Wolff tells stories from his past: how he learned to use chopsticks while he was stationed in Japan during the Korean War; his restaurant on Ventura Boulevard and his desire as a young man to go to brewery school.

But some of his stories venture into more difficult topics — the sounds he heard during Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Germany; his father being taken away to a concentration camp; and his family’s escape from Germany to Ecuador.

Shulman and Beach have been meeting Wolff, a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Mission Viejo, for lunch every month for the past two years, as a way to support a community that experts say is at increased risk for social isolation and depression as a result of the trauma they lived through during their youth.

“I’m Jewish and it means a lot what he’s been through,” Shulman said.

“A lot of times you’ll do volunteer work, and you leave and never see them again. This one, we’re in for the long run with him. We made a commitment to him and both of us will be there. That’s the part we feel strongly about — it’s so personal.”

Now, Shulman and Beach’s success with Wolff has inspired the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, to enlist dozens of volunteers to do the same.

Meal Partners — the new JFFS project launched this summer — will match volunteers with local Holocaust survivors and encourage the pairings to share a meal together on a regular basis, whether it’s at a restaurant or in one of their homes.

They also host group meals for Russian-speaking survivors.

“There are over 300 Holocaust survivors living in Orange County that we know of,” said Cally Clein, manager of the Holocaust survivor program for JFFS. “And a large percentage of them are living at or around the poverty line and are very isolated.”

“Many of them were traumatized as children, teens or young adults, so it affected their ability to create stable relationships in their family circle,” she said. “Or their families might be really small because they might be the only one in their family who survived.”

As Clein explained, sharing meals also expands survivors’ circle of care so that they have a broader support network that can connect them to the resources they need.

Shulman and Beach, for instance, helped Wolff get new glasses and dental work.

Meal Partners is funded by the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care, whose funds come from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant to develop innovative solutions to care for Holocaust survivors in the United States.

Successful programs can then be replicated, not only for the 100,000 Holocaust survivors around the country, but also for other populations affected by trauma.

More than 60 people already have expressed interest in volunteering, according to Symone Sass, coordinator of Meal Partners.

Before interacting with survivors, all volunteers will complete training in person-centered trauma informed care.

And it’s not just survivors who will benefit, said Sass — it’s also volunteers.

“A lot of people recognize that this is our last chance to connect with this population,” Sass said of the volunteers’ desire to work with survivors. “This is an aging population, and this is our last moment to learn from them and to carry on their legacy and their story into the future. Because in the next 10 years or so, they won’t be around anymore.”

Shulman and Beach, who bring Wolff magazines and ice cream to take home every time they meet, as well as a menorah on Hanukkah, agree.

Said Beach: “We’ve become attached.”

CAITLIN YOSHIKO KANDIL is a contributor to Times Community News.

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