Above: Cantor Judy Greenfeld, second from left; Sandra Gelfat, fourth from left; and Hannah Mandel, second from right, at a Purim event with participants of the Nachshon Survivor Project. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

Like an expectant matchmaker, Cantor Judy Greenfeld recently welcomed more than two dozen Nachshon Minyan congregants to her Encino home, where they gathered around the dining room table and shared stories about their recent first date.

But it wasn’t that kind of first date.

The congregants are part of a new program at Nachshon called Reviving Our Roots: Nurturing New Branches that matches individuals and families with local Holocaust survivors. Developed in conjunction with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), it is known informally as the Nachshon Survivor Project.

Greenfeld said the first seed for this project was planted in 2007, when she made the first of several trips to Auschwitz and saw evidence of the Holocaust firsthand.

“It became a mission of mine to educate and to let our children and families know that this occurred,” she said.

Instead of teaching simply through sermons and seminars, she wanted families to empower themselves through project-based and experiential learning. So it seemed beshert when Hannah Mandel, 22, an AmeriCorps VISTA employee who works closely with area survivors through JFS and who happens to be a member of Nachshon Minyan, met with Greenfeld late last year to see if there might be an opportunity to collaborate.

“[Survivors] are all very connected with one another. But people in the Jewish community are not very connected to survivors unless they have family or know someone who is a survivor,” Mandel said. “This is a great way to pair the two.”

Mandel is not related to any survivors, but her parents — also Nachshon members — were keen on participating in the program with her, in part because they had heard so many stories about these wonderful people from their daughter.

The congregation of 147 families began the project with 15 sets of volunteers and 17 survivors (two couples are participating) to keep things manageable. Participants were asked to visit with their match at least once a month over the course of a year, stay in regular contact and invite them to Nachshon Minyan holiday celebrations and Shabbat services, including an upcoming April 18 service marking Yom HaShoah and honoring the survivors. They also will journal about their experience and meet monthly with the other volunteers.

Shelley Billik, 51, an environmental consultant from Encino, was immediately interested but wanted to make sure her husband, Brad, and teenage children, Alana, 17, and Jeremy, 14, were on board. It turned out Jeremy had some apprehensions.

“He said that it might be really emotionally difficult to be with a person who has gone through tragedy,” Billik said. “They might be bitter. They might be angry. He was kind of afraid of what it would be like to be with a person who has had real difficulties.

“He has done plenty of volunteering with me or with the homeless, so it’s not that he’s been super sheltered. I think it was really insightful. He realized, ‘I might not know how to communicate with a person like this. I might not be able to provide comfort or companionship to someone who has gone through such a horrid experience.’ ”

Ultimately, the Billik family decided to participate. They were paired with a survivor named Gitta Ginsberg, 77, who signed on in part because, she said, “I feel an obligation to speak.”

David Miller Studios 2011

Gitta Ginsberg. Photo by David Miller

The North Hollywood resident was born in Vienna in 1937, but her family moved to Brussels when she was 1. In 1941, a year after Germany invaded Belgium, Ginsberg’s parents sent her to live with a well-to-do, older Christian woman, Alice Spinette, and Ginsberg took on a new identity, Jannine Spinette.

Ginsberg was content in her new life. She went to Catholic nursery school, attended church and even was baptized. She was able to see her parents every few weeks. But her comfortable situation was short-lived. In 1943, the daughter of some acquaintances revealed to her SS boyfriend the girl’s Jewish identity, and Ginsberg was taken from Spinette and put in a dark jail cell — for exactly how long, she is not sure.

In 1944, Ginsberg was sent to an orphanage operated by the Association of Jews in Belgium. When the orphanages were threatened, convents took in many Jewish children, including Ginsberg. She was reunited with her parents later that year when the country was liberated, but she lost many other relatives.

As with the rest of those participating in the project, Ginsberg and the Billik family weren’t paired randomly.

“We tried to strategically match them so they would each get something from one another,” Sandra Gelfat, Nachson executive director, said.

For example, a survivor who became a prolific artist was paired with an artist from the congregation and her family. A Sephardic survivor was paired with two Sephardic women. In the case of the Billiks, it helped that Ginsberg loves kids — she has two sons, two granddaughters and did administrative work for the Los Angeles Unified School District — and singing (Billik and Alana are in the Nachshon choir).

On the day of their first meeting in February — a Shabbat dinner at the Billik home — both sides admitted to being nervous.

“The only thing I knew about them is that they were Jewish,” Ginsberg recalls. “I bake, so I made a marble cake.”

When Ginsberg arrived, cake and cane in hand, there was one small hurdle: three steps leading into the house. Brad and Jeremy Billik each put an arm around Ginsberg and gently carried her into the house. After this, everyone’s nerves dissipated.

Later, over dinner, Ginsberg shared her harrowing story with the family.

“I was really impressed with all of them, and the children were unbelievable,” Ginsberg said. “We all sat at the Shabbos table and we all talked and I talked and those children didn’t move. They were fascinated by what I was saying.”

“We even laughed,” Billik added. “My husband did joke with her, that she is the first person we have met who has been baptized and bat mitzvahed in the same lifetime.” (Ginsberg was bat mitzvahed in her 50s.)

As for Jeremy, who was initially apprehensive, “He loved hearing the stories,” Billik said. “He said it was completely different than what he expected. She was intelligent and funny and a great baker.”

Already the Billiks and Ginsberg are planning a game night, as they share a fondness for board games. Billik said she is especially looking forward to seeing and playing some older board games Ginsberg brought from Europe, games with French and German names she used to play with her children. The Billiks also are going to Ginsberg’s home for Passover.

These are just the sorts of interactions Greenfeld and the other organizers were hoping for.

“The goal of this,” Greenfeld said, “is that next year, at the time of the High Holy Days, the children and families that have been watching and creating these relationships with these Holocaust survivors, they will tell these stories so the Holocaust survivor can feel heard. Then it’s really transferred — physically, mentally, spiritually. Then we have reconnected what got severed.

“The biggest comment [about the survivors] is they talk and talk and talk. They were silenced. Once they tell the story, they need to know that it goes somewhere.”