By Rena Greenberg
It is 9:00 am on a Sunday morning in a Northeast Philadelphia warehouse. Over 1,000 volunteers position themselves round hundreds of tables lined with cardboard boxes and a rich variety of kosher food items. A human assembly line forms; children begin tossing packages of macaroni and bags of split peas into boxes.
Once brimming with an array of edibles, they are carried to the parking lot where young college students load them into waiting minivans and SUVs. Jokes and chitchat punctuate the organized chaos, and within 90 minutes, the last few vehicles head out to their designated delivery routes. Mission accomplished.
This well-oiled operation is a monthly event run by the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA), under the auspices of Chabad-Lubavitch. Established in 2000 and based in the Greater Philadelphia region, the humanitarian, nonprofit agency has developed a unique volunteer-driven system to deliver kosher food to those in need. In this part of Philadelphia, nearly a quarter of the Jewish population lives in poor or lower-income households. Although the agency targets a Jewish population, it also offers charity to any needy individual, regardless of faith or ethnicity.
Today, the JRA is the largest hunger relief program in the Jewish community and one of the three largest in Philadelphia. JRA’s food program serves 6,000 individuals every month, delivering some 270 tons of food a year.
In The Beginning
Marc Erlbaum co-founded the organization back in the summer of 2000. He had recently become involved with his local Chabad and was looking for a way to encourage his network of friends to become more Jewishly engaged.
“I approached my 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 ‘what about all the poor Jews right here in Philadelphia?’”
Executive director of the Lubavitch House of Philadelphia and rabbi of Chabad at Vilna Congregation, Rabbi Schmidt had been contacted by many needy families over the years. He encouraged Erlbaum to use his passion to address a larger issue on a local level.
Erlbaum decided to help out at home. With Rabbi Schmidt’s guidance, he identified 19 Russian families who needed help. In September of that year, Schmidt, Erlbaum and a friend rented a U-Haul truck, loaded it with food from BJ’s Warehouse, and made their first deliveries.
“By the second month, those families had spread the word a bit, and now we had thirty-seven homes to deliver to. So I called my brother and my cousin and a few friends, and eight of us got it done. By the third month, there were about fifteen 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 three days, they had received nearly a thousand calls for aid.
With far more mouths to feed than volunteers, Erlbaum and company spent the rest of that first year trying to keep up with demand. By their first anniversary, the JRA had inspired enough volunteers to deliver to all thousand homes.
“Since then, we have outgrown two warehouses, our recipient numbers have grown from 19 families to over 3,200; our volunteer corps has swelled from those three initial volunteers to 15,000 participants, and in the last year, we have packed and delivered at least 37,000 boxes of food and become the largest hunger relief agency serving our region’s Jewish community,” said Erlbaum proudly.
The Invisible Poor
Many of these disadvantaged are immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose difficulties with language and lack of familiarity with the established agency structure have left them without Jewish aid. Others are local American families who have simply fallen through the gaps. Some find themselves in dire circumstances due to physical, mental or emotional disabilities. Many still suffering from 2008’s recession are unemployed or underemployed, working in low-wage positions. And the elderly among them live on low, fixed incomes against the rising cost of living.
“There is a stereotype that all Jewish people are successful, but we do have many who are needy like everyone else,” said Erlbaum, the agency’s director, noting that 57,000 Jewish people in the region are low income or living below the poverty line. Often unseen and rarely discussed, poverty among Philadelphia’s Jewish population is as debilitating as it is among other ethnic and cultural groups.
In fact, Jews are among the poorest people in the region. According to an analysis by Allen Glicksman, director of research for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, seven percent of Jewish people aged 18 to 39 were living at the poverty level ($19,790 for a family of three) in the five-county area in 2012. Six percent of white Protestants and Catholics lived at that level.
The polarization is higher among people 75 and older, Glicksman’s work shows. Twice as many Jews as white Protestants in the area live in poverty: six percent vs. three percent. Among white Catholics the number was five percent.
“There’s just more poverty among Jews than the community recognizes,” Glicksman said.
While there are no government studies of Jewish poverty because the census is not permitted to include questions about religion, other data sources paint an equally dire elsewhere. Fully one quarter of New York’s 1.1 million Jews are poor, according to the New York-based Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
“People look at the Jewish community as being powerful, especially in finance and politics,” said Raechel Hammer, Vice President of the Klein Jewish Community Center in northeast Philadelphia. “But homelessness, poverty, food insecurity – they all hurt Jewish people.”
For many JRA recipients, food deliveries from the JRA means having enough to eat instead of having to go without.
“When we started, there were food pantries out there and some Jewish organizations, but there wasn’t really anything servicing the entire Jewish population,” explains Erlbaum. With little overhead, a unique door-to-door operation and no bureaucracy, the JRA was feeding more families than any other well-established programs within mere months of its formation.
Whoever is Hungry Come and Eat
“Initially we did no screening,” says Erlbaum. “Whoever asked us for food, got it.”
Although this generosity leaves the organization open to abuse, the volunteers delivering the food ensure, through direct observation, that the recipients are truly needy.
Rabbi Schmidt describes an instance when he delivered a food box to a family living in a large, fancy house with two cars in the driveway. First impressions seemed to indicate that this family had no need for a food box. Before crossing the family off the distribution list, Schmidt investigated further.
“I discovered that there were actually two families living in the house, both of whom had recently lost their businesses and were in dire straits. They were living together to try to pay one mortgage,” says Schmidt. The family continued to receive the food deliveries.
Today, the JRA utilizes a more sophisticated intake protocol, with an application process that includes a self-declaration of need. With an underlying goal of getting people the help they need as soon as possible, no other documents are necessary.
“Our policy is to feed whoever we can,” says Erlbaum. “We can either spend all of our resources trying to identify those who are gaming the system or we can provide the best and most effective quality assistance to those in need.”
JRA executive director, Amy Krulik, says that “98% of people who receive our food support are living at or below 150% of the federal poverty line. It is not easy for some people to ask for help. To say ‘I don’t have enough to eat’ is painful on so many fronts.”
“Coming to us and accepting help is hard, so we do our best to go to them,” she says.
An Innovative Approach
All of JRA’s food boxes are hand-delivered to the homes of recipient families, creating an important relationship between giver and receiver. No other food agency has such a delivery system in place. The use of volunteers to personally pack and deliver food items donated by the Jewish Federation creates truly unique connections in the community. JRA’s volunteers act as the eyes and ears of the agency and often report on problems or concerns they observe while making a delivery. JRA then uses this information to connect recipients with additional community services.
JRA is also the only strictly kosher food pantry in the region, often providing specialty staples around the Jewish holidays like apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, hamantashen for Purim and matzah for Passover.
The trailblazing organization strategizes to maximize every aspect of their program. They’ve created proprietary software to map out delivery routes for their volunteers, determined the ideal weight for a food box (15 lbs – just enough to include important food items like canned vegetables and fresh potatoes, but not so heavy that volunteers will suffer back aches), timed delivery routes to make sure that volunteers don’t miss Eagles football games, and made sure to include what they’ve labeled the “hard seven” of fresh produce (apples, carrots and other produce with what Krulik describes as a “low squish factor”).
Volunteering, a Community Experience
Krulik explains that it is the JRA’s goal to provide a quality, organized and fun experience for volunteers. The organization is concerned with how it serves the community and also how it draws volunteers from across the Jewish spectrum to support the effort. Many organizations have participated in the monthly food distributions, including Jewish camps, community organizations, synagogues, colleges, schools, companies, and service organizations. Numerous families, individuals, young professional groups, bar and bat mitzvah students, and others have made volunteerism a part of their monthly routines.
Some come to pack, some to deliver, and many to do both.
“This is a cause people are very receptive to,” says Erlbaum. “People can simply write checks, but this is something special where you can see the faces of the people you’re helping. It is something very tangible and creates a real sense of camaraderie.”
“Whenever we speak to other organizations and tell them how many people we get on a monthly basis, they cannot believe it,” says Erlbaum. “We give people an opportunity to help and the response has been beyond our wildest expectations. 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.”
Brian Newmark began volunteering at JRA ten years ago when his son Jacob was just four.
“We would put him on top of boxes of food and he would put cans of tuna in the boxes as they moved by,” Newmark recalls. When Jacob’s younger sister, Annie, was old enough she also helped out. The family helps pack and deliver the food boxes about 10-11 times each year and the kids, who are teens now, have “essentially done this their whole lives.”
“We’ve been going to the same building for probably the last 7-8 years, so we know the residents and look forward to seeing them each month.”
To Brian and his wife, Emily, the monthly volunteering as a family reinforces the importance of giving back.
“We know that our family is very fortunate,” Brian explains. “Going on delivery routes every month and seeing how others live in a tiny studio apartment is a reality check for us and a reminder to appreciate everything we have.”
Experiencing Jewish Values
The values of chessed and tzedaka permeate every packing and delivery day, underscoring that, as humanitarian as the organization is, it is still very Jewish.
“There is an enormous cross section of the Jewish population in many communities who are denominationally unaffiliated but can identify Jewishly through their volunteering at the JRA,” says Rabbi Schmidt.
Schmidt taps into the rare opportunity to reach unaffiliated individuals by delivering a short Torah thought at every communal packing day. JRA also includes Jewish educational literature in the boxes.
“First and foremost, we help people physically,” says Schmidt. This often inspires recipients of that help to seek out spirituality, as well. Many have expressed their gratitude for being able to eat kosher, some have asked for a mezuzah for their door posts and still others have become more involved in the other programs and holiday events that Chabad sponsors.
Krulik recounts how one family started volunteering after their second grade daughter turned to her parents and said: “You always say we are Jewish. What does that mean?” The parents began considering different ways to engage Jewishly that would involve the whole family and found the JRA. The first time they volunteered, their daughter stood next to another second grade girl who attended the local Jewish day school.
That day, the children wrote notes to add to the boxes and the other girl signed her name in Hebrew. Fascinated, the daughter asked her to help her sign her name in Hebrew, too. The two girls began talking and soon the day school student was telling her new friend the entire story of Passover. The positive experience launched the family’s journey to further explore their Judaism.
Expanding to Other Communities
Three years ago, JRA’s outstanding success led the organization to invest in efforts to expand nationally. The organization has since added locations in Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois.
“As an organization, we felt that we should be replicating what we do here, in other places,” says Erlbaum. “It has a twofold benefit of being good for needy families and getting more people involved in the community. It’s a win-win.”
The JRA sought to replicate in other cities the structure that worked so effectively in their pilot program – partnering a Chabad emissary with a local lay leader. Working the Chabad network, they soon established five satellite locations.
The JRA headquarters in Philadelphia helped the new JRA franchises by providing them with the materials necessary to get them off the ground: an operations manual, a website, volunteer and recipient database systems, and their one-of-a-kind proprietary routing software. Each new JRA location is then operated like a franchise, and is encouraged to develop their own methods to best suit the unique needs of their city.
Rabbi Boruch Hecht, director of JRA Metrowest, NJ, took this advice seriously and developed a new model: every month the JRA travels to different synagogues and community centers throughout Morris and Suffolk counties and uses that location as a packing and delivering base.
Hecht explains, “With each distribution we are reaching out to a different Jewish area, gaining a whole new pool of volunteers and involving many more Jewish people in acts of kindness.”
Rabbi Yosef Moscowitz, who directs JRA of Chicago, takes a different approach, specifically seeking out the young adult community. Strongly affiliated with another Chabad program, Young Jewish Professionals (YJP), the Chicago JRA taps into a pool of 300 young adult volunteers who pack 150 boxes of food every month.
“It was the perfect way to engage the young adult crowd,” says Moscowitz. “Often they are uninterested in the more religious aspects of Judaism like Shabbat or Jewish learning, but this was something that pretty much attracts everyone across the board.”
To encourage further engagement, YJP often hosts social events like “Bowling for Boxes” where young professionals sponsor a box of food to gain entry at a fun, social event.
Moscowitz said, “We are still very much a grassroots movement in which the young adults in our community are taking a leadership role. When young Jews take ownership of their Jewish engagement and lend their talents toward an important communal project like this one, there is tremendous potential for growth.”
Erlbaum hopes to turn that potential into a reality.
“The millennial generation wants to be more socially active. Now is the time to capitalize on that kind of energy. Whether it’s a small or big branch, every community can benefit from a chessed project in which people can work with their hands and help others,” he asserts.
“I would love to see a JRA chapter in every city.”