Wiedmer: KAVOD a charity to make all Chattanoogans proud

KAVOD's mission is to provide dignity for Holocaust survivors. (Screenshot: kavodensuringdignity.com)

Despite being a pretty fair athlete in his own right, John Pregulman never has quite reached the athletic success enjoyed by his late father Merv, who became a proud member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982 for his accomplishments as a Michigan Wolverine in the early 1940s.

And in terms of sheer dollars raised, John's and wife Amy's KAVOD charity to aid financially strapped Holocaust survivors is certainly dwarfed by that of the Siskin Memorial Foundation, the philanthropic giant founded 68 years ago by his mother Helen's late father Garrison and her uncle Mose.

photo In this Nov. 7, 2012, staff file photo, Merv Pregulman poses for a photo with Jacob Crimmins, left, and John Pregulman, right, at the History Makers Luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

But that doesn't mean KAVOD is any less noble or important than Siskin or any less deserving of support.

"Kavod's a Hebrew word for dignity," John said Monday morning. "Our mission is to provide dignity for Holocaust survivors."

To help that along, the couple will discuss the goals and successes of their charity at 7 tonight at the Jewish Cultural Center on McBrien Road.

They'll no doubt point out that as many as one-third of the estimated 100,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in this country live at or below the poverty line. How they far too often have to make unfair choices on whether their fixed incomes should pay for food, medicine or utility bills. How they've fallen through charity's cracks because of guidelines and regulations.

"This is not a fundraiser," John said. "This is to inform people about the financial difficulties that so many of these Holocaust survivors are being forced to endure."

It all started for John several years ago, when a friend at the Illinois Holocaust Museum asked him to photograph 60 survivors. Nearly five years later, he's taken 600 such photos, traveling as far away as Tokyo, Prague and Krakow, Poland, to snap his subjects.

"I've taken a picture of a man in Chicago who was 105," John said. "We're taking a photo of a woman in Charlotte who's 103."

But it was how the years had treated too many of them that brought John and Amy to form KAVOD.

"I became enthralled with these incredible people," said the 60-year-old. "But I realized quickly that so many of them didn't have much. They'd offer us something to eat, but when they went to their refrigerators, they'd be almost empty. A slice or two of cheese. Maybe a couple of Cokes. But next to nothing."

Though he was probably best known during his McCallie School days as an athlete who excelled in basketball, track and tennis - the 1976 Blue Tornado grad later played on the Vanderbilt basketball team for two years as a walk-on - John Pregulman's real passion always has been photography.

"I had a couple of individual shows when I was still in high school," John said. "I later went to the Parsons School of Design in New York City."

With a slight laugh he added, "My dad didn't speak to me for six months."

Returning to his father's good graces, John eventually came back to Chattanooga to become president of Siskin Steel. A few years after Siskin was sold in 1996, John moved on to a real estate company his father started: Robmer Partners. Though they divide time between Memphis and Denver, he and Amy are the co-chairs of this year's StarNight gala, which is entering its 56th year of raising money for the Siskin Children's Institute.

photo This photo illustration shows four photographs of holocaust survivors whose faces were captured by John Pregulman.

Yet KAVOD seems to have touched Pregulman's heart the most among the many hats he wears as a businessman and philanthropist.

"Amy's the executive director. She's the real catalyst," said John of his wife, who grew up in Memphis. "I'm just the creative side. She's always been with nonprofits, so she knows how to make this all work. We've raised $120,000 so far, and 100 percent of that has been given away."

They've aided 750 Holocaust survivors so far, their gifts touching folks in 27 cities, including San Francisco and Chicago. Though they never meet the recipients - local agencies determine who needs the assistance - those checks and gift cards help keep the lights turned on, food in the fridge, or medicine that could make the difference between life and death.

A stunning stat: According to government statistics, around 17 percent of seniors in this country live at or below the poverty line. Among Holocaust survivors, that number jumps to more than 30 percent.

As John noted a few years ago in this newspaper: "We can't stand the idea of people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust now having to wonder where their next meal is coming from."

So they give back everything that KAVOD receives, roughly 95 percent of the donations coming from individuals.

"Just something to help them with an unexpected expense," he said, "which is what they can't afford to have happen."

Tonight at the Jewish Cultural Center will be about both the 600 photos of Holocaust survivors John has snapped to date, the pictures always going to the subject and their families, as well as the 750 survivors whom KAVOD has helped. It will be a brief history lesson on man's inhumanity to man and one couple's fight to help those men and women who survived that inhumanity.

"Because they're such private people," Pregulman said of the survivors, "they don't talk much."

Which makes it all the more fortunate that they have the Pregulmans to speak for them.

NOTE: Anyone interested in learning more about KAVOD or to send a donation should contact Amy Israel Pregulman at 901-831-0684 or amy.kavod@gmail.com.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.