Holocaust survivors get free dental care
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Holocaust survivors get free dental care

MetroWest Federation partners with Rutgers to provide needed treatment

At left, dental student Kiera Rosen created and fit dentures for Holocaust survivor Larisa Rabinovich; at right, Holocaust survivor Helen Bright is at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine postdoctoral clinic, where licensed dentists who are training to become specialists care for patients. Both were referred by the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.
At left, dental student Kiera Rosen created and fit dentures for Holocaust survivor Larisa Rabinovich; at right, Holocaust survivor Helen Bright is at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine postdoctoral clinic, where licensed dentists who are training to become specialists care for patients. Both were referred by the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.

Like many Holocaust survivors, octogenarians Larisa and Anatoly Rabinovich of Sussex County suffer tooth and gum problems stemming from poor nutrition and medical care during their early years. Larissa needed dentures and Anatoly needed implants, both very expensive procedures.

Helen Bright of Livingston survived the Holocaust by staying with rural families paid to harbor Jewish children. She was severely malnourished during those growing years. Now 85, Ms. Bright needed two root canals and restorative work.

Hanna Pickholz, 93, of Central Jersey also is a survivor. While she doesn’t have chronic dental problems, she couldn’t get her teeth cleaned during the first year of the pandemic because her dentist had suspended his practice.

Now, thanks to a free dental program for Holocaust survivors, the Rabinoviches, Ms. Bright, and Ms. Pickholz are receiving state-of-the-art care at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine through a partnership between the school and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

About a dozen survivors so far have taken advantage of the program, which started in October 2020 with funding from Dr. Howard and Ina Drew. Dr. Drew is the director of implantology and vice chairman of periodontics at RSDM.

On a recent episode of “Aging Insights,” a TV program produced by NJ Advocates for Aging Well, Dr. Drew explained that in the fall of 2019, he received an email circulated by his synagogue, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s community program coordinator, Debbie Rosen.

Ms. Rosen was seeking dentists willing to treat Holocaust survivors pro bono. The need for this service had been identified at a regional Leadership Council funded by the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center on Aging and Trauma.

“The email really hit home,” Dr. Drew said. “Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors. They had always suffered with dental problems attributed to the horrible concentration camp environment, with no medical or dental care, no sanitary conditions, and poor nutrition.”

He told Ms. Rosen that he wanted to make it possible for “these worthy people” to get free care at RSDM. “We have a state-of-the-art facility, we have the most medically advanced equipment, we have a medical faculty that is excellent in clinical dentistry,” he said.

“I’ve been involved in teaching DMD and postdoctoral students, so I was aware that we could offer these patients everything from the most simple procedure to complex rehabilitation and even take care of medically compromised individuals.”

About 130 visits since February have saved survivors an estimated $40,000 in dental care, according to social worker Debbie Rosenwein, manager of Holocaust Services at Jewish Family Service of Central NJ. A partner agency of the federation, JFS publicizes the program to its constituency and provides transportation to RSDM for eligible Union County residents who cannot get there on their own.

“Our Holocaust survivors love it,” Ms. Rosenwein said. “Some go for regular cleanings and some for more extensive work requiring multiple visits, but they all speak glowingly about the program. They feel they are getting VIP treatment, which they love and deserve. One time the dental clinic called me because they were concerned one of the patients hadn’t been in touch to make a follow-up appointment. I was so touched by that.”

Dental care, she stresses, “is a major issue for our survivors. It’s expensive, and they are on fixed incomes. They have often turned to JFS for support. But when someone had a bill for $2,000 or $3,000 and we could only give $500, that didn’t allow us to meet their needs.”

The new program “has taken the stress of finances out of the equation; there is no cost for any care they will receive,” Dr. Drew said.

“Simple procedures can be given by a DMD candidate, and every step is checked by an attending faculty member. Advanced therapy goes to our postdoctoral residents, who are taking three to six years of advanced training and are always surrounded by specialists with whom they can consult.”

Before the program got underway, Dr. Drew and a core team – including his son, Alexander, a private practice prosthodontist — received training from JFS in Person–Centered Trauma-Informed Care. This approach, supported by the federation, sensitizes healthcare providers to the distinct needs of Holocaust survivors and suggests how to deliver services without retraumatizing them.

Dental student David Dadoun said that one of the survivors he works with was widowed recently, and when she comes for treatments much of his time is devoted to listening to her. “I let her speak and I know when to be quiet,” Mr. Dadoun said. “Her strength is really remarkable. Working with her has refocused me on what’s important. So much of dentistry is just talking to people and listening.’’

Ms. Pickholz noted that the dental student assigned to her asked permission to look at her teeth and proceeded only after she said yes.

“I heard about this service from Debbie Rosenwein at JFS,” she said. “I didn’t have a cleaning for a year and a half, so I decided to go there. I figured they’d just give me a cleaning, but they took X-rays of my whole mouth, which would cost a fortune.”

Afterward, she called Ms. Rosenwein and asked if this had been a one-time service. “She said, ‘No, this is your new dentist!’ So I said to myself, maybe I will go in four months for another cleaning. But even before I could call, they called me to make the appointment. They are very nice, and I highly recommend them.”

Dr. Drew said RSDM strives to provide survivors with a safe, trusting, transparent environment.

“The Holocaust survivor patient has endured enormous cruelty,” he said. “It is our job to recognize them and give them the comfort and care they need.”

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call the RSDM patient navigator at (973) 972-5304. Union County Holocaust survivors who need transportation to the dental appointments should call (908) 352-8375.

Holocaust survivors, or their family members, who would like to learn about other services or benefits and reparations that may be available to them can call Jewish Family Service of MetroWest at (973) 637-1715 (English) or (973) 637-1716 (Russian) if they live in Essex, Morris, or Sussex counties; or Jewish Family Service of Central NJ at (908) 352-8375 if they live in Union or Somerset counties.

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