Volunteers from ARSP tell their stories and experiences during their service in the United States

Marlene volunteering at the Selfhelp Community Service in New York City

During the preparation time for the voluntary service our supervisor often told us that we should be aware of being confronted with accusations.
Now, I have spent 5 months with my clients, all are Holocaust survivors, who have lost parts of their family in the Shoah. Most of them are, differently than expected, very open towards me and my “Germaness” and do not relate me in any way to their horrible experiences. Some even want to speak German and love to sing the old German folk songs, so that I got to practice all the lullabies my mother used to sing when I was a child. Furthermore, I have been introduced to my name partner Marlene Dietrich and I am now able to sing most of her songs by heart.
But there is one client that is different: In this article, I will call her Miss S. I don’t know much about how Ms. S survived the war. Sometimes, she shares little pieces of her story with me, but most of the time, she doesn’t want to talk about her experiences. Ms. S is the only client that confronted me with my heritage as a German by saying that “you were all Nazis during that time” and by asking me about my grandparents and my great-grandparents.
Although it might be hard to image for strangers, Ms. S and I built up a very close relationship. When she introduces me to others, she tells them that I am her student, learning about the Holocaust and Judaism. I think this is a good description for what I am doing here in New York. Visiting all these different people allow me to get to know a lot about the Holocaust. It is really interesting to learn about what happened to them and how they were able to survive the war. You cannot say that there is a typical “survivor” because everyone has their own story that they share or don’t share with me.
When I talk about my work, people often ask me if the job is hard for me. And yes, sometimes, you just want to cry because you can’t imagine how somebody who went through so much pain can still smile and talk to a German. But otherwise, it is very inspiring because every day I learn new reasons to be happy and thankful. I am really happy that I got the opportunity to work in this project and to meet all these impressive people that I now can call my friends or sometimes my second-grandparents.

Contributing to life in the Jewish community

Hey there, everyone, my name is Ella Marie. When I entered the big, modern building on the Upper Westside for the first time, it was inspiring to see the Jewish community being so active.  It is still overwhelming after these first few weeks because there is always a lot happening at the Jewish Community Center (JCC): Young mothers coming to the JCC Manhattan with their newborns, older adults in many programs running like political discussion groups on 7th floor and young adults working out on the 4th floor, all at the same time.

One of my main tasks is to work with older adults who are leading different programs at the JCC as well as supporting the 60+ programs in general. Very often that goes along with a lot of work behind the desk, like making room reservations, cancellations or phone calls. Additionally, I attend staff meetings and having daily conversations with people of different ages and backgrounds.

Besides a touching Memorial Service and senior trips to the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Hallet Nature Sanctuary, I was also involved in organizing and implementing of two Russian-Jewish programs for Sukkot at the Rooftop of the JCC building. In the afternoon we had an event for families where children created their own Sukkah with wood and leaves while their parents socialized. The celebration continued with another program called “Shashlik in the Sukkah”, that had a nice prayer and gathering for dinner for mainly 20-40+ members of the Russian-Jewish community. Everybody really enjoyed the celebration and I was happy to participate in the Jewish holiday traditions of Sukkot!

Looking back, I have had some very exciting and busy weeks at the JCC. Also looking back privately, I have had inspiring weeks as a new resident of stunning New York City in general. One thing that I already learned about my work is that no matter if it comes to computer work or interacting with older adults, I must always stay patient and keep a huge sense of humor. I kept this in mind when I had an incident where I had to spontaneously order cabs in NYC for a huge group of excited seniors. It has also been really helpful to have a lovely boss and colleagues to help and be supportive when issues like that arise. I look forward to other upcoming events in the JCC, like the 2nd Annual Symposium on “Positive Aging” on Nov 13 which the team has been planning for months now. Overall, I am more than grateful to be able to contribute to life in the Jewish community every day!