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 Jews in need 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!
Read the story of Rabbi Yisroel and Aliza Silberstein, Chabad emissaries who recently fled Chernihiv, Ukraine, but are still finding ways to assist their community.