On a Sunday this past July, Jeff and Cheryl Lemberg of Fox Chapel were part of the first group of volunteers to pack and personally deliver boxes of food to waiting families across the region as part of the newly formed Jewish Relief Agency.
The JRA is a Philadelphia-based hunger relief organization that was established in 2000 by Marc Elbaum.
In May, it was brought to the other side of Pennsylvania by Rabbi Ely Rosenfeld, director of Chabad of Fox Chapel.
“It started off as an initiative to help families cope with costs of extra food that occurs around the holidays,” said Rosenfeld, though it has now grown into a full-fledged 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to help families in need on a monthly basis.
The Pittsburgh branch’s stated mission says, “The Jewish Relief Agency satisfies our unique desire to take care of each other and do good in the world. By providing families in need and seniors with limited mobility with a 12×12 box of food once a month, we are bringing our community together in the spirit of volunteerism and charity. The Jewish Relief Agency of Pittsburgh intends to significantly benefit families, as volunteers and recipients, throughout our great city.”
There are also JRAs in MetroWest New Jersey, Southern New Jersey, Miami and Chicago.
In addition to helping the community directly with its hunger needs, Rosenfeld said that the JRA’s other stated purpose is to allow the volunteers to become more involved with their charitable giving.
“People don’t want to just write a check, but they want to hand out the blankets, per se, to be part of the giving,” said Rosenfeld.
Twice a month, volunteers will gather at Chabad of Fox Chapel and work as an assembly line, packing up food items from 15 different “stations.” The contents of the boxes vary but usually contain about 30 kosher items, including many pantry staples such as rice, cereals, pasta, ketchup, cans of tuna fish and peas. They even include some non-food items, such as toilet paper and soap. Larger families may receive several boxes of the same goods per scheduled delivery day.
Then, cars are lined up and volunteers will stack as many boxes as they can fit in their cars and deliver them to the requestors’ homes.
Rosenfeld said that the JRA makes sure that the volunteers are not delivering boxes to neighbors to protect the privacy of the recipients.
Contributions of money or food items are made by volunteer families or companies. Rosenfeld ran a half marathon in May that was a fundraiser for the JRA; other fundraisers may occur in the coming year.
Rosenfeld is adamant that the JRA does not compete with the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry (SHCFP).
“I look it as a complementary kind of program,” Rosenfeld said, calling the pantry, which is part of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS), a “phenomenal program, with much greater resources,” including a walk-in grocery.
“We welcome collaboration with organizations seeking to eliminate the burden of hunger, which provides opportunities to identify service gaps throughout the county, and ultimately secures a stronger safety net for our communities and families in need,” Matthew Bolton, director of the SHCFP, said in a prepared statement.
Rosenfeld said that the JRA’s door-to-door delivery model would service all of western Pennsylvania, though primarily the focus is on families who live in the suburbs.
The SHCFP, which services 1,200 individuals, will also reach out to suburban residents, says Aryeh Sherman, director of the JF&CS, and/or direct those in need to programs in their own neighborhoods.
“Resources are available in many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods,” Sherman said, “and if someone is in need of regular, ongoing food assistance and lives outside of SHCFP’s service area, we will gladly help connect them to the appropriate pantry or food bank in their area to access food services, as well as extend additional social service supports offered through Jewish Family & Children’s Service.”
One unique feature of the JRA is that there are no financial eligibility requirements that must be met, said Rosenfeld, trusting that if someone asks for help, he must need help.
“There are no hoops to jump through,” he said. “There are no questions asked. Ever.”
Although it is a program geared toward Jewish families, the “no questions asked” policy extends toward the Jewish/non-Jewish question. Nonetheless, “I am trying to work with other charities in the area, so if I have someone I know who is outside the realm of the Jewish community and someone else can help, by all means.”
JRA currently serves 75 families, up from 25 since the organization’s Pittsburgh inception this past May, and Rosenfeld said requests for help have grown exponentially to about 180 families.
The Pittsburgh JRA does not yet have the resources to fulfill the need, but that is something that Rosenfeld hopes will happen in the future.
Want to help?
Visit jrapittsburgh.com for additional information or call 412-212-6644.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)