Most of the Holocaust survivors alive today were children or teens during the Holocaust. Their view of the world was shaped by trauma at a critical time in their development. Growing up with intense trauma teaches us that the world is not safe. Holocaust survivors saw the world as traumatizing, war, deprivation, starvation, torture, killings. Their responses were survival based: fight, flee, or freeze.
It is estimated that 70% of adults have been exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, although the intense trauma of the Holocaust is an outlier certainly. A person-centered trauma informed (PCTI) therapy approach takes these elements into account and informs those providers who work with and support aging populations with ways to create purposeful living.
On June 10th, Sharon Glassberg (MCC), clinical therapist at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Southern Arizona (JFCS), shared the work done in Tucson with Holocaust survivors and their families at the annual Aging + Action Conference hosted by the National Council on Aging. JFCS of Southern Arizona was part of a nationwide effort administered through Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) to develop innovations in PCTI care for Holocaust survivors. Along with co-presenters Naomi Jones (Ph.D. Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, NJ) and Shelley Rood Wernick (MBA, Managing Director, Center on Aging and Trauma, Jewish Federations of North America), Glassberg presented on the impacts trauma has on older adults and their caregivers, and how agencies can implement person-centered, trauma-informed care not only for Holocaust survivors but also for other aging populations affected by trauma. The annual Aging + Action Conference is a forum for dialogue and an opportunity for presenters to share ideas and policy solutions that serve aging people. This year, there were over 150 presentations and 1,300 virtual attendees.
In Southern Arizona today, there are about 70 Holocaust Survivors. The wellbeing of this population is still affected by their childhood traumas. “The effects of trauma don’t end because the experience did,” said Glassberg. “As we age, what we might have been able to keep tucked away in our unconscious suddenly has time and space to emerge. Children are grown, jobs have ended in retirement, what the world tells us is these are our golden years to enjoy; however, for those who have been focused on rebuilding all their lives, not dwelling on the past, the additional time and space is often fertile ground for trauma to resurface.”
Glassberg is a Clinical Therapist/Wellness & Support Specialist at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona. For a majority of her life she has been involved in the Jewish Community. Her early roles in building community included work as a camp counselor, religious school teacher, and youth group advisor. Later she worked with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona as the Director of Jewish Education and as the principal of Tucson Hebrew High, a supplemental religious high school program. During this time, she realized how much Jewish teens were struggling with identity, goals, family and friend relationships, among others. In order to assist them in a meaningful way that went beyond their classroom learning, Glassberg earned a master’s degree in counseling while working full time. Her interests have expanded from working with teens and young adults to also working with our community’s aging population, most specifically the Holocaust survivor population here in Tucson.
JFCS uses a person-centered, trauma informed approach in our services. A PCTI approach changes our way of thinking to that of understanding, honoring, and accepting, moving from “What’s the matter with you?” to, “What happened to you?” PCTI means truly accepting that each of us is perfectly developed given the experiences that we have endured.
As part of the JFNA funded grant, JFCS hosted a community art project with the goal of fostering purposeful living. The project resulted in a large-scale broken glass mosaic created by the survivors themselves and featuring each of the survivor’s signatures and places of birth fused onto Stars of David. It was created for the commemoration of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which is considered the start of the Holocaust. The piece is a living legacy for the survivors and also served to bring together the survivors from Eastern Europe and from the Soviet Union. This project provided the opportunity to not only interact together but create a piece of art that recognizes and honors them, provides them with a sense of belonging in this world, both individually and collectively.
Glassberg’s presentation highlighted how agencies can support Holocaust survivors and others in the aging population affected by trauma through understanding the connections between childhood traumatic experiences and aging and the benefits of person-centered, trauma informed approaches in therapeutic and community services.
Sharon Glassberg, MCC, is a Clinical Therapist and Wellness Support Specialist for JFCS of Southern Arizona. In her recent work, she has focused on providing trauma-informed care for older adults, including Holocaust Survivors. She is an active member of the Jewish community of Tucson.
Victoria Moses is the Grant Writer for JFCS of Southern Arizona. She has a background in Anthropology and received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 2020.