Rami Schwartzer and Felix Fibich both live hectic lives in New York City.
Schwartzer is a sophomore at List College, a joint program between Columbia University and Jewish Theological Seminary, who plans to pursue a career in the rabbinate. He's currently studying Philosophy and Talmud, teaches 5th grade at a Manhattan Hebrew school and is a member of the Columbia/Barnard/JTS Israeli Dance Troupe, Shalhevet.
Fibich is a professional dancer and choreographer with Broadway credits to his name. He has been a teacher, a performer and was the subject of a Polish television documentary. Fibich has traveled extensively, is a lover of the arts, a regular at the local YMCA, maintains a daily exercise routine and is regularly assigned to gigs throughout New York.
Both men are good friends, despite their busy schedules and a 71-year age difference.
Felix Fibich and Rami Schwartzer.
"He's a riot," Schwartzer says of Fibich. "He's 91 years old, still taking jobs, still dancing around. He's one of the most positive people I know."
Fibich and Schwartzer met last fall through a Hillel program that pairs Jewish college students with Holocaust survivors for weekly get-togethers. In 2004, Hillel received funding for the ICHEIC Service Corps. (ISC) program through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). The distribution of those funds are overseen by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc.
ICHEIC, which concluded its findings in 2006, distributed more than $300 million to nearly 50,000 Holocaust victims and their heirs over an eight year period. Additional monies were awarded to Jewish orginzations, including Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, to support Holocaust awareness programming and humanitarian projects.
Sima Kelner, program coordinator for ISC, reports about 60 student-survivor relationships blossom each year. The students, from eight college and universities in Manhattan, are paired with survivors based on interests and location. The intergenerational duos meet weekly for one hour, sharing life stories from drastically different perspectives.
"Students are regularly surprised at how much they grow to value their older friends’ opinions and look forward to their weekly visits," says Kelner. "Students learn to reevaluate their priorities, values and identity from their interactions. Survivors see the commitment of the student and begin to anticipate their meetings and enjoy sharing life stories and lessons."
ISC participants complement their weekly visits with courses at Hunter College, New York University and Columbia University. The classes, which often feature guest speakers, allow students to reflect on their new friendships through group discussion and journal writing.
In Schwartzer's journal, he wrote:
"Telling you my stories," [Felix] says at the end of every visit, "makes me feel like there is still use for me in the world." I am continually grateful for his wisdom and the way it inspires and motivates my own actions.
Schwartzer describes his visits with Fibich as both an honor and an obligation.
"This is the last generation of witnesses to the horror of the Holocaust," he says. "I feel a communal obligation to the world, but more so to those who lived the Holocaust, to continue to tell their story, share their legacies."
Irit Blau and Arthur Grinblat.
Irit Blau officially ended her participation in the ISC program when she graduated in January, but her relationship with 93-year old Arthur Grinblat has continued.
"We seriously became like family," she says. "He's made a friend for life."
Blau and Grinblat attended a Purim party together at the 92nd Street Y in March. Blau last saw Grinblat on Friday, during Passover.
"We talk about everything," she says. "Family, Israel, politics, school. Just like friends do."
"I was nervous at first," Schwartzer says of his first meeting with Fibich. "I felt a little inferior, like who was I to come in and offer any sort of condolence to a person who had experienced [such horror] in his life?"
But, when Fibich opened the door to his Upper West Side apartment, he greeted Schwartzer warmly, like an old friend. The two sat together on his porch and immediately swapped stories, quickly identifying all they had in common.
"Felix talks a lot about today," says Schwartzer. "What he's doing now and what he'll do tomorrow. But he'll often say 'I've lived a good life.' because he knows it could be over at any time."
Since ISC began four years ago, 229 student participants have logged more than 3,000 visits with survivors. Full funding for the program ends this semester. Only a percentage of the program will continue to be funded through 2010. ISC is currently working to find supplemental funding so that the program can continue for two more years.
For more information about ICHEIC Service Corps., contact Sima Kelner.