Feeding the hungry has assumed biblical proportions in the Delaware Valley with a wildly successful program created by Lubavitch House of Philadelphia. The project known as JRA (The Jewish Relief Agency) is less than three years old and already has the reputation of being the most successful and efficient food distribution program in the area. JRA personally delivers monthly boxes of kosher food to more than 1500 needy families using a core group of almost 3,000 registered volunteers. Last Sunday, more than 600 volunteers, government officials and community leaders gathered to ‘launch’ this month’s food distribution day in preparation for the Passover Holiday.
“There is nothing like it in the entire Delaware Valley in terms of sheer numbers and volunteer commitment, ”says Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein, the director of JRA. “Our program has attracted the attention of the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia, who give us a partial grant, and SHARE, a State food agency which now provides us with the kosher food.”
Lowenstein says the program was started at the urging of local businessman and friend of Chabad, Marc Erlbaum, who wanted to help the Jewish poor in a tangible, hands-on manner. They began by identifying and delivering food to 12 needy families and by the following month their list had expanded to 50. Realizing that they had uncovered a neglected area in Jewish social services, they added a note to each of the 50 boxes asking for their help in identifying other needy people. “The following month we received 100 calls and the month after that 1200,” says Lowenstein.
At that point, the JRA, still in its infancy, turned to the community for help and became a formidable force in fighting hunger among the Jewish population of greater Philadelphia. “We raised funds, recruited volunteers and set out an agenda of providing every person with enough staple food to last approximately a month,” says Lowenstein. The typical soup kitchen package is enough to last three days. SHARE, the agency who assumed the financial burden of providing the food was excited about the concept, the JRA program modus operandi, and the high tech manner in which it was implemented. The computer data base enables volunteers to check in and sign up online, with an address breakdown of over 120 distribution routes.
Even more remarkable is the story of the volunteers. Rabbi Lowenstein maintains an e mail list of approximately 3,000 people who have registered to become volunteers and are available to help pack and deliver the food boxes on a monthly basis. The volunteers represent a true cross section of the community: Families, singles, seniors and teenagers from every synagogue and every organization; business leaders, doctors, attorneys and teachers. Everyone who gets involved subsequently enlists their friends and neighbors.
Helen Jaron, a Philadelphia attorney and JRA volunteer since its inception, says that JRA has had a tremendous impact on her family. Her husband Greg was pivotal in the development of JRA and served as board chairman, and their two sons ages 8 and 6 have gone to almost every single distribution. “It gives us the opportunity to give back to the community in a way that is understandable to our young children, beyond writing a check or going to a communal dinner,” says Jaron. “Driving up to the homes of the recipients, knocking on their door and saying ‘we’re here from Lubavitch to help,’ is a touchy feely kind of giving that they can understand.”
Jaron recalls that on a recent Sunday distribution day, her older son had a hockey practice conflict and when she told him they would go to practice first, he said “mom, JRA is much more important than hockey.” His proud mom also remembers that when he was five years old she found him emptying his piggy bank into a zip lock bag and said “I’m getting my money together to give to JRA.”
“It’s important to me that our children see a different side of the world,” says Jaron. “When they see that not everyone lives in a home with a big backyard, that people sometimes share one room, it helps them understand why giving is important. We send out e-mails to everyone we know and everyone wants to be part of it. Our children’s day school now has a ‘JRA Day’ and all the synagogues are starting to do that too. It’s huge, everyone is talking about it throughout the community. JRA is a charity people can get their arms around.”
On distribution day, families and singles pair up to load up the cars and deliver the boxes. Rabbi Lowenstein says that “it has even become a good place for singles to meet.” JRA offers programs for the volunteers including Friday night dinners, classes and holiday programs. This Passover, he is hosting a seder for more than 50 volunteers.
The food boxes during the month of Passover contain only kosher-for-Passover items including grape juice, matzah, gefilte fish and horseradish, while the staples in the monthly food boxes include canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, rice, barley, mayonnaise, peanut butter, tuna fish, sardines and salmon. The Campbells Soup Company was so impressed with the program, that they donated 36,000 cans of their newly kosher vegetarian vegetable soup for inclusion in the boxes.
The food boxes are typically worth about $54 each if purchased in the grocery store and the Passover boxes are slightly higher. This year’s wholesale food cost for Passover totaled $41,000.00. For the elderly, the immigrant, the single parent, the unemployed and the poor of the Delaware Valley, the boxes have become a much anticipated and welcome respite from overwhelming food costs and the JRA office has a thick file of heartrending thank you notes from recipients.
The staff at SHARE has spent many hours with the rabbi to learn which foods are acceptable for the kosher boxes. Lowenstein notes that this provided for some memorable humorous moments, such as when they discovered that wasabi sauce had been substituted for the horseradish. “Can you imagine an elderly Russian Jew putting wasabi on his seder plate?” he said. The horseradish was quickly reinstated.