Many of the approximately 150,000 Israelis whose lives are challenged by dementia and Alzheimer’s are Holocaust survivors. Israel’s Melabev organization specializes in caring for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Melabev is a Hebrew acronym, but it’s also the Hebrew word for heartwarming, and that’s exactly what this story is about.

In the wake of the spread of COVID-19 in early March, Israel’s Ministry of Health ordered the network of Melabev centers to close their doors, and the centers remained closed until early June. During that time, most of the centers were unable to offer any services to their clients.

That’s where the Israel365 Charity Fund Holocaust survivor campaign stepped in. Israel365 founder and Breaking Israel News publisher Rabbi Tuly Weisz explained that, “As a result of the support Israel365 was able to provide, Melabev’s Beit Shemesh branch was the only site that did not stop offering services during the coronavirus closure.”

Breaking Israel News spoke with Rachel Gordon, the gerontology counselor at Melabev Beit Shemesh about how important uninterrupted services are for dementia sufferers.

Gordon explained that, for clients of Melabev, “It’s a huge part of their day to come to the center.” Besides various therapies and opportunities for socialization, clients were provided with breakfast and a hot lunch.

All that support came to a screeching halt when the center was closed by Israel’s Ministry of Health.

With the help of Israel365 donors, the Beit Shemesh center was able to continue providing food. Volunteers distributed meals to clients at home, according to their special dietary needs. The staff and volunteers were also able to arrange for delivery of fresh produce and groceries for clients and their spouses.

Since the Melabev staff is so familiar with the cognitive abilities of their clients, they were also able to prepare printed cognitive activities, such as word games, sudoku, crossword puzzles in English, Hebrew, French and Spanish, that were appropriate to the individual client’s level and deliver them daily.

Approximately a third of the center’s clients were able, with the technical assistance of caregivers, to participate in “Virtual Melabev Therapy” via Zoom. Programs included chair yoga, piano, and accordion concerts, magic shows, Jewish music singalongs and more. These daily Zoom activities helped clients stay connected to their friends from the center and helped staff monitor how they were doing.

Being away from the center’s regular activities caused some clients’ conditions to deteriorate. Family members reported not being able to get their parents out of bed in the mornings because there was nothing for them to do. “One cannot underestimate the importance of having something to get up for every day,” Gordon elaborated.

During this time, due to the help received from Israel365, staff members were able to make therapeutic phone calls to clients and their families. Gordon told about how one elderly client whose condition had gotten significantly worse at home. Understanding that it was time to call in hospice services, Gordon made a gentle suggestion to the family.

“When a family is in crisis, they aren’t able to think clearly,” she explained. “We were able to offer the family a sense of shared responsibility and care, to assure them they weren’t alone at this very lonely and traumatic time. It was literally a life saver for the family.”

Gordon related that Shoshana Lichtman, Director of Melabev Beit Shemesh was able to assist a different client to say the “Viduy” prayer – a Jewish prayer of confession said just before death.

Lichtman explained that, because of Israel365’s donations, “We have kept in touch with all of our clients during Corona, whether through home visits, phone calls, WhatsApp messages or video calls. Families of our clients have expressed their gratitude that we did not abandon them once the center was closed.”

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When clearance was given to reopen in June, an urgent, new need emerged. “Transportation issues were huge. Melabev also took a financial hit and couldn’t offer transportation anymore. We know our clients and 98% of them would not have been able to attend without transportation. While we were closed, it was the food that was the main support. Now it’s definitely the transportation, without which they would not be able to come back,” Gordon shared.

Weisz explained that Israel365 was able to provide, “double the amount of transportation in order to [allow for] social distancing in the special wheelchair van that brings them to the day care facility.”

“Now people are getting up and getting out of the house. We do yoga, physical therapy, socializing with staff and other clients, hearing music, and the physical part is a big piece because before, they were just in bed,” Gordon explained.

Lichtman shared these words of thanks. “The financial assistance provided was key to enabling us to shift gears and be creative in attending to our clients’ needs. By partnering with us, Israel365 and Rabbi Tuly Weisz facilitated the continuation of our work so that we were able to support and protect one of the most vulnerable sectors of society, seniors living with dementia.”

“It’s so heartwarming to know that so many Jews and Christians are with us during this time, supporting us and allowing us to continue our professional work on behalf of our clients and their families. We are very, very grateful,” Gordon concluded.

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Helping Holocaust survivors is very personal for Weisz. His paternal grandfather, “nearly didn’t survive Auschwitz. He was so weak at liberation, he had to be carried to his food every day.”

When Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago, Weisz’s grandfather, then in his early 20s, weighed just 70 pounds. “People had to carry him everywhere. He couldn’t even walk on his own. And he made a promise to Hashem (God), and he said, ‘If you enable me to survive, I will dedicate my life to helping other people.’

“And my grandfather did that. He worked closely with and personally attended to the needs of the elderly. That story has been passed down from generation to generation in my family and motivated me to want to help Holocaust survivors.”

To assist Holocaust survivors, please visit the Israel365 Charity Fund