Sofia, a Holocaust survivor in the Chicago area, has faced countless challenges over the years. As with so many other Jews who were in Europe during World War II, she has sustained her share of loss and trauma. She is also, according to social service professionals working in the survivor community, among the approximately one-third of Holocaust survivors in this country living below the poverty line.
As if that's not difficult enough, Sofia has had significant dental problems, not uncommon among Holocaust survivors, who went without oral hygiene during the Shoah.
But thanks to an initiative that launched more than six years ago, Sofia and more than 200 other local survivors are getting the dental attention they need. That initiative, the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program, was established out of a federal push to create public-private partnerships that would ensure that survivors without means would receive long overdue care at no cost to them.
Aviva Sufian, an Obama Administration appointee who became in 2014 the Special Envoy to Holocaust Survivor Services, approached Henry Schein, one of the world's largest distributors of medical and dental office supplies, to participate in the initiative. Schein quickly signed on.
In turn, Schein approached the Alpha Omega International Dental Society, a historically Jewish professional organization and the oldest international dental society, to fulfill the mission of providing free dental care to Holocaust survivors in need. Alpha Omega's members, the vast majority of whom are Jewish dentists, responded enthusiastically-- particularly those in metropolitan Chicago, which has a large and active Alpha Omega chapter.
Chicago became one of nine initial pilot sites to implement the program, relying on CJE SeniorLife, a JUF agency, and its Holocaust Community Services program to screen appropriate clients. The ARK, another JUF partner, also works with Holocaust Community Services to provide free dental services to the survivor community.
One of the first dentists to whom the Holocaust Community Services program turned for assistance was Dr. Laurie Gordon-Shaw.
Gordon-Shaw, a Chicago native and active, longtime Alpha Omega member, continues to provide pro bono services to Holocaust survivors to this day. During the height of the pandemic, clad in COVID-protective gear, she visited patients' homes to attend to urgent needs.
"In my experience," said Gordon-Shaw, who has practiced for 33 years, "survivors lost a tremendous number of teeth early on in their life" because figuring out how to stay alive in Nazi-torn Europe took precedence over every other need. Many years later, she noted, so many of survivors are scraping by, they have often had to "choose between food or care."
Gordon-Shaw said that it has been "meaningful to me to give back" to the survivor community through the Alpha Omega-Schein program. She is hardly the only Chicago area dentist to feel so.
In Evanston, Alpha Omega member Dr. Adina Silberman - one of this year's 36 Under 36 honorees - is working to make sure that survivors' dental needs are satisfied. This work has particular resonance for her, she said: Both of her maternal grandparents were survivors.
"It's very personal," Silberman said, adding that it has been enriching to hear her patients' stories of love and survival. "We build these tremendous bonds."
Gordon-Shaw, Silberman, and the 40 or so Alpha Omega dentists in the Chicago area offering free care have been able to call upon the Prospect Heights-based Golden Ceramic Dental Lab to supply, gratis, the dental products their patients need.
Cydney Topaz, who owns the business with her husband, Ben Topaz, said giving back to survivors has special meaning for them both.
"He thought it would be a wonderful way to honor his grandparents," who were Holocaust survivors, she said of her husband. As for Cydney Topaz, who once worked in the Jewish community, the ability to connect with the survivors has brought her "back to Jewish communal life in a way I didn't expect," she added.
Those interested in contributing services to the Holocaust survivors' dental program can call Alpha Omega's Holocaust Survivors Program Manager Bernice Edelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Holocaust Community Services at CJE SeniorLife, call 773-508-1004.
For more information on The ARK's dental clinic and additional services available to Jewish community members in need, call 773-973-1000.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.