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Message from the President - AO/HSC Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program

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A recent front page headline in the weekly Canadian Jewish News stated that “One in seven Canadian Jews lives below the poverty line – What are we doing about it?”

Usually statistics about poverty in Canada mirror those in the United States, so it would not surprise anyone to learn that 15% of all Jews living in the United States lives below the poverty line. This is a shocking truth that all of us who deeply care about our communities must face and take action to help resolve. After all, ‘tikkun olam’ is central to everything we do as Alpha Omegans.


While the 15% is a shocking number to many of us, the fact that one quarter of Holocaust Survivors residing in the United States live in poverty is even more upsetting. As a child of Holocaust Survivors, I am acutely aware of the many challenges my parents and their survivor friends and relatives faced after the war. They were alone, in a new land, learning a new language, with very little learned skills or higher education.

Many survivors faced debilitating health issues from years of nutritional deprivation and Nazi brutality, not to mention the emotional and psychological scars that resulted from appalling personal experiences and witnessing the suffering of their loved ones. Thankfully, most received some help, began to work in factories or started small shops and businesses, and were able to start a new life establishing a loving home for their family. Many survivors, however, were not as fortunate and are still suffering today.

In December 2013, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced a White House initiative to support the needs of Holocaust survivors living in the Unites States. As part of this initiative, a new position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was created to assist victims of Nazi persecution living in the United States. Earlier this year, Aviva Sufian was named as the first Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services. Ms. Sufian’s focus will be on survivors living in poverty and to advance programs that will help Holocaust Survivors. She was directed to collaborate with non-profit organizations and the private sector to raise awareness about the needs of this vulnerable population and explore public-private partnerships that could provide additional support.

Aviva Sufian is a very close friend of Allison (Allie) Neale, manager of corporate communications at the Henry Schein Corporation. As such, when Aviva told Allie about her new appointment as the White House Special Envoy for Holocaust Survivor Services, Allie spoke to Steve Kess, President of Henry Schein Cares and a long time Alpha Omega Board member, who contacted the leadership of Alpha Omega. Several months later, together Alpha Omega and Henry Schein have answered the White House’s call to develop a public – private partnership solution to enhance the quality of life for Holocaust Survivors in need through the creation of the Alpha Omega – Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program.

Here are some of the unique oral care issues that many Holocaust Survivors face:

  • Many were young children during World War II and experienced prolonged nutritional deprivation which impacted their oral health.
  • A lack of adequate nutrition during the formative years that is required for proper bone formation
  • Many received little or no dental care throughout their childhoods.
  • As a result, many have lost the majority of their teeth, and their remaining teeth require significant care.

The pilot program is set to begin in January 2015 in nine North American cities and will have a focus on providing oral health care for the financially neediest individuals who are served by the Holocaust Survivor Assistance Programs administered by the network of Jewish Family and Children’s Service agencies and other entities. These agencies will prioritize patients based on the urgent need to eliminate pain and restore function, and the lack of dental coverage or private financial resources.

During the first year of the program, Alpha Omega dentists will strive to serve a total of 250-300 patients in the following cities: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York City, NY/NJ Metro Area, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Toronto. We are hoping to expand the program in 2016 and 2017 to more U.S. cities and possibly to Israel where we know that there is a critical need to help Holocaust Survivors.

At every participating city, an Alpha Omegan Ambassador has already been named and has already started to recruit volunteers from their chapter to participate. Furthermore, a Program Coordinator will be hired to facilitate the program in a centralized way and to help our ambassadors make the linkages between volunteer local dentists and patients, including referrals of JFCS identified patients to the volunteer dentists, as well as working with the agencies to work out logistical issues.  

Oral care products, such as restorative materials, will be secured through donations from Henry Schein Cares and its industry partners. We are working to recruit laboratory partners who would be willing to donate their services for the fabrication of oral prosthetic devices such as crowns and dentures, but wherever possible we are hoping that the volunteer dentist’s own lab will be enthusiastic about donating one or two cases and become a partner in this wonderful cause.

Alpha Omega U.S. Foundation Vice Chair and past AO Meritorious Service Award recipient, Allen Finkelstein has helped create ‘Scope of Care Guidelines,’ which details the dental procedures that will be provided within the program. Procedures beyond the scope of care will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and may be approved. All the information including patient records, supplies for treatment, and the value of care will be recorded in a central registry through Bedford Healthcare under the leadership of Allen Finkelstein.

Although Alpha Omegans will provide dental services at no charge, realistically, in order to sustain a program of this magnitude a budget is required to fund patient transportation, translation services, care for treatment outside the scope of care and other administrative costs. We plan to secure and announce major funding for this program shortly, but donations for the program are always welcome from our members through our U.S. and Canadian Foundations.

As Alpha Omegans, we now have an important opportunity to enhance Holocaust Survivors’ access to oral care. We know that this initiative will have an exponentially positive impact on the lives of this very deserving population. Greater access to oral care will significantly enhance survivor’s overall health and quality of life. Moreover, our program will enable the limited emergency assistance funds that are available to the patients served by this program to be used to support their other basic unmet needs.  This is the last generation of survivors; their needs are urgent and our collective response as Alpha Omegans must be as well.

A famous phrase in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers states: אם לא עכשיו אימתי, which translates to “if not now – when?” When indeed?

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Heidi Weber, Executive Director
E-Mail: hweber@ao.org


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