Helping Survivors Survive
Alumna advocates for impoverished Holocaust survivors
- By Thomas James Weaver
Among tallies of the elderly living in poverty, these are especially sobering and shameful statistics. Fully half of the approximately 60,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York City and three surrounding counties live at or below the poverty line. Cut another way, that’s one quarter of all of the Holocaust survivors living in the United States. While there is no quick fix to the deeply entrenched financial challenges faced by this vulnerable population, some hard-fought relief was won this summer when the government of New York City added $1.5 million in aid for Holocaust survivors to the municipal budget.
UVM alumna Meredith Rose Burak ’07 spearheaded the effort as chair of public-private partnerships for the nonprofit Survivor Initiative. It follows on past successes that include catalyzing $3.5 million from private donors and the federal government to support survivors nationally, and working with the White House to establish the first-ever special envoy for Holocaust survivor services.
It’s all volunteer work on Burak’s part. By day she has worked for Merrill Lynch the past four years managing financial portfolios for nonprofits. But as vocation or avocation, advocacy for the enslaved and imperiled has been woven into Burak’s life since her days as a UVM undergrad.
Coordinating multiple Jewish and Holocaust survivor networks to speak as one was critical to gaining traction for the NYC financial support. Burak also broadened the coalition by reaching out to Hispanic, African-American, and old-school New York politicians throughout the city’s boroughs.
Rafael Espinal, a city council member from Brooklyn, was unaware how many Holocaust survivors lived in poverty until he spoke with Burak. But as he learned more about the population’s plight, he quickly took the lead among council members pushing for support. “Meredith was in the forefront of all of the behind the scenes work,” he says. “This all wouldn’t have been possible without her dedication to finding avenues to secure funding.”
Those who knew her growing up in South Hero, Vermont, would find Meredith Burak an unlikely advocate for the Jewish community. She’s frank that she was uneasy, even embarrassed, by the Jewish heritage drawn from her mother’s side of the family.
The High Holy Days brought on an unwelcome spotlight in elementary school classes where she was the only Jewish student. Burak would cringe at standing up in front of class and explaining the Jewish calendar: “I’d just be mortified.” She also grew weary of comments like, “You’re Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.” Burak explains, “I don’t believe the people around me were intentionally anti-Semitic, but by the question and response, they were creating a distinction between them and me, this sense of otherness, that made me feel like there was something wrong with me.”
A shift began when she met David Altschuler, a young man she calls her first close Jewish friend, while attending Northfield Mount Hermon School. He showed her that her own rejection of her heritage grew from ignorant, societal anti-Semitism. She began to embrace her Judaism more deeply as she learned about the Jewish people’s ethic — spawned from their own enslavement — to stand strongly against slavery, regardless of the race or religious group afflicted.
“When I came to that realization, I really began to accept myself and come into myself,” she says.
The tragic death in a drowning accident of her friend David Altschuler deepened her resolve. She resolved that when she entered college she would take a Holocaust Studies class in his honor, as Altschuler’s parents have been stalwart supporters of the UVM Holocaust Studies Program.
Though the class enrollment was full, Burak talked her way into Professor Richard Sugarman’s course that fall semester. So began a close mentorship. Burak would take a class with Sugarman, a man she calls “a special human being, a higher light,” every semester at UVM.
Sophomore year, Burak says she was somewhat adrift, needing to connect to something “larger than herself.” Susan Leff, then director of UVM Hillel, mentioned the ethnic cleansing happening in the western region of Darfur and pointed out the need to raise worldwide awareness of the genocide.
That spark caught fire. Burak went back to her dorm room and spent the night searching the internet for information on Darfur. Soon after, she travelled to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to hear Swanee Hunt speak about helping the survivors of genocide in Bosnia. Burak stepped up during the Q and A and thanked Hunt for her work in Bosnia but asked, “What are we doing now about Darfur?”
That bold question connected Burak with like-minded students in the audience from George Washington and Georgetown universities. She would bring the budding national student activist movement on the issue back to Burlington.
“I set up a table outside of the library, put up a poster, and started stopping people. ‘Hey, do you know what is happening in Darfur?’ I was that person, which was very uncharacteristic of me.”
As more students stopped to talk with that person, the UVM student chapter of STAND began to gain traction. Their push would eventually lead to the university divesting from companies doing business with Sudan. And Burak would go on to work on a national and international organizational level with STAND, including pulling together the first-ever demonstration on Darfur at the United Nations.
Burak also spearheaded efforts to bring author and historian Elie Wiesel to campus in April 2007. She had first encountered Wiesel’s book Night in one of Professor Sugarman’s classes and was deeply moved by it. After close to $100,000 in fundraising to make the event happen, Wiesel spoke to a capacity audience in Patrick Gymnasium, part of a genocide education series sponsored by STAND and UVM Hillel.
Burak’s commitment to advocacy for those who most need support has continued beyond her UVM years. She’s remained active on issues on genocide, folded her work for Holocaust survivors into her days, and runs the Mary Hass Foundation, a small charity supporting research on ovarian cancer at the UVM Medical Center. The latter is in memory of Burak’s mother, who passed away six years ago. Burak is also chair of development for UVM Hillel and on the Board of Directors of Hillel International.
In late summer, she was looking ahead to a major transition in her personal life, a move to Israel. First, five months an a kibbutz learning Hebrew. Then she will make her life as an Israeli citizen in Tel Aviv. “I’m just following my heart. The difference between a dream and a goal is actually doing something about it,” she says.
Not surprisingly, as Meredith Burak plans this next dramatic move in her own life, she balances it with work on behalf of thousands of people she will never meet. Burak has been in dialogue with government leaders and advocacy organizations, lending her energy, voice, and collaborative skill to the plight of the Yazidi women and girls of Iraq, a people ravaged by ISIS, as they seek asylum outside of the Middle East.