Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) mobilizes volunteers to assist people in need. Our volunteers pack and deliver food and provide a variety of caring support services to nearly 6,000 diverse low-income individuals throughout Greater Philadelphia. All of our volunteers, who are of many backgrounds, faiths, ages and abilities, are united by a common commitment to help those in need and strengthen community. Through community service, JRA’s volunteers nourish body and soul.
JRA is an independent 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization. JRA works in partnership with, and is supported by: the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, United Way, SHARE, Philabundance, and more than 500 other community organizations, as well as financial contributions from generous individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Daniel Erlbaum, President
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt
Board of Directors:
from our co-founder...
In the summer of 2000, I approached my Rabbi and dear friend, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, and said I have a few friends who might be interested in doing a relief mission to help poor Jews in some impoverished community somewhere overseas. He said “shnook” (or some similar and less repeatable Yiddish word), “what about all the poor Jews right here in Philadelphia?”
So, we identified 19 Russian families who needed help. Rabbi Schmidt, myself, and another guy rented a U-Haul truck and loaded it up with food from BJ’s Warehouse, and we made our first deliveries in September of that year. By the second month, those 19 families had spread the word a bit, and now we had about 37 homes to deliver to. So I called my brother and my cousin and a few friends, and 8 of us got it done. By month 3, there were about 15 volunteers and 50 some recipients, and we put a note in each box in English and Russian that said, if you know anyone else who needs food, have them call us. Within 3 days, we had received nearly 1000 calls.
The rest of that first year was spent trying to grow quickly enough to get to the point where we could deliver to all of the people who had requested help. The issue at that point was getting enough volunteers to do all the deliveries, so each month a few of us engaged in what affectionately became known as “hounding” – that was sending emails to our lists of contacts on a weekly basis, treading that fine line between persistence and annoyance. It’s hard to imagine today when we’re averaging nearly 1,000 volunteers each month, but back then, we had to work really hard to get even 100 volunteers to show up. One of our regular volunteers began to refer to our frequent emails as “JRA’s kosher spam.”
By our first anniversary we had grown to the point that we had enough volunteers to deliver to all 1,000 homes. We planned a large event, invited the press and did some advertising, and as it turned out, the distribution date was only 5 days after the September 11th attacks in 2001. We weren’t sure whether to cancel or not, but we decided that the best response to that horrible tragedy was a large communal mitzvah. Senator Arlen Specter came and spoke that day, and we had an incredible turnout.
Since then, we have outgrown 2 warehouses, our recipient numbers have grown from 19 families to over 3,100, our volunteer corps has swelled from those 3 initial volunteers to over 14,500 participants, and in just the last year, we have packed and delivered over 34,000 boxes of food and become the largest hunger relief agency serving our region’s Jewish community.
A lot of hard work has gone into that growth – we have a terrific staff now and a very dedicated board and yellow-capper team – but the key ingredient is, and always has been, our volunteers. Without this incredible labor force, there’s no way we would be able to get all of this done – if we had to pay for the packaging and deliveries, we’d be broke and out of business. Whenever we speak to other organizations and tell them how many people we get on a monthly basis, they literally cannot believe it. How do you do that, they ask, and our answer, quite simply, is “we don’t know.” We give people an opportunity to help, and the response has been beyond our wildest expectations.
The two biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past 12 years from JRA are 1) if you want to try to help someone, don’t think about it too much, just do it, it may surprise you how far a single good deed can go, and 2) people’s appetite for giving and participating in a positive endeavor is incredible – give them a chance to act upon their inherent generosity and you’ll be surprised at how enthusiastically they’ll respond.
Of course, all of this past growth does not mean that we are satisfied. There is plenty more to do in our own backyard, and we are ecstatic to now reach out to other communities to assist in the formation of JRA branches throughout the country. We thank you for your interest in JRA and look forward to working with you!