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Bet Tzedek Secures Vital New Protections for U.S. Holocaust Survivors

(Dec. 1, 2014 – Los Angeles, CA) Bet Tzedek, a legal aid firm advocating for U.S. Holocaust survivors and others since 1974, has persuaded the Social Security Administration (SSA) to act decisively to protect the federal benefits of poor and elderly survivors who receive German pensions related to their imprisonment in Nazi-controlled ghettos. At Bet Tzedek’s urging, SSA amended its policy and procedures manual, the Program Operations Manual System (POMS), to clarify that under federal law, German “ghetto pensions” cannot be counted against survivors’ eligibility for need-based Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

“There are approximately 130,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States, about a third of whom live below the federal poverty level and often rely on SSI and other government benefits to meet their basic needs,” said Jessie Kornberg, Bet Tzedek president and CEO. “Our Holocaust Survivor Services team determined that a lack of guidance regarding the German ghetto pension program had led SSA to mistakenly reduce, terminate, or deny many survivors’ SSI benefits.”

The policy update comes at a crucial time for needy survivors, many of whom are newly eligible for payments from Germany under an expansion of the ghetto pension program that took effect on August 1.

Bet Tzedek was uniquely positioned to advise SSA on the need for more robust guidance for its eligibility workers. In the four decades since its founding, Bet Tzedek has assisted thousands of Holocaust survivors with their World War II-related compensation claims and other legal needs, including appeals from the erroneous reduction or termination of government benefits. Bet Tzedek litigated the landmark case of Grunfeder v. Heckler, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that reparations payments to survivors of the Holocaust do not constitute countable income in determining eligibility for SSI benefits. The Victims of Nazi Persecution Act of 1994 made this rule applicable to all federal and federally-assisted programs based on financial need.

“Even a temporary disruption of needed benefits and services can be devastating,” offered Nicholas Levenhagen, an attorney in Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust Survivors Services team. “SSA’s new policy instruction should spare U.S. Holocaust survivors the emotional and financial toll of losing – even briefly – the benefits they rely on for basic necessities.”

“By taking these steps,” said Levenhagen, “SSA Commissioner Colvin is providing vital new protections for U.S. Holocaust survivors. We thank her for recognizing the needs and rights of survivors across the nation.”

Holocaust survivors in need of legal assistance can call (323) 549-5883 to speak to a Bet Tzedek attorney.

About Bet Tzedek
Founded in 1974, Bet Tzedek pursues equal justice for all by providing high-quality, free legal services to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds. One of the nation’s premier public interest law firms, Bet Tzedek uses direct legal service, impact litigation, community outreach and legislative advocacy in the areas of consumer rights, employment rights, elder justice/caregiver law, Holocaust reparations, housing, human trafficking, public benefits and real estate to serve more than 20,000 people every year.

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