In the summer of 2000, I told Rabbi Menachem Schmidt that I had a few friends who might be interested in doing a relief mission to help poor Jews 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-speaking families who needed help. We rented a U-Haul truck, loaded it up with food from BJ’s, and made our first deliveries in September of that year. By the second month, word had spread, and 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 1,000 calls.
Since then, we have outgrown 2 warehouses, we’ve grown from serving 19 families to over 3,200 households, and our volunteer corps has swelled from those 3 initial volunteers to between 500 and 1,000 every month. 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 our volunteers. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to get all of this done – if we had to pay for packing and deliveries, we’d be broke and out of business.
The two biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past 17 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 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 success does not mean that we are satisfied. There is plenty more to do. We thank you for your interest in JRA and look forward to working with you!
Bill Novick, Board Chair
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt
In Philadelphia, 23% of seniors are living in poverty and 1 in 5 children are struggling with hunger. JRA provides free food and essential household items to 3,800 food-insecure households in the 5-county Greater Philadelphia area and parts of southern New Jersey. JRA's programs are open to anyone living in our delivery region with a household income at or below 150% of the federal poverty guildline, regardless of their religion, age, race, ethnicity, or background. Our clients include homebound older adults, children, persons experiencing housing instability, Holocaust survivors, individuals with intellectual disabilities, refugees, and persons facing temporary financial emergencies.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 1,000 volunteers would come to JRA's warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia on one Sunday each month to pack and deliver food. When social distancing recommendations were offered, JRA was an early adopter, modifying its program model to limit the risk of exposure for both clients and volunteers. We pioneered a drive-thru pick-up model for food pantries across the state, provided safety training for volunteers delivering the items, and implemented a no-contact delivery to clients.
JRA provides a monthly box of nutritious food weighing about 15 lbs. that includes vegetables, carbohydrates, proteins, fruits, and fresh produce in the eight months of the year when refrigeration is not necessary. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, JRA has increased its offerings by providing critical household goods like toilet paper and dish soap, and PPE in the form of face masks. In addition to the monthly box, JRA's Family Friendly Food Initiative provides over 700 children and their families a bag of child-approved foods such as peanut butter, jelly, granola bars, pretzels, and fruit cups. Many of our seniors and families with children also receive an Everyday Essentials bag, which provides important household goods, such as shampoo, laundry detergent, toilet paper, soap, incontinence supplies, and diapers.