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In 2000, 30-year-old Marc Erlbaum stood in a BJ’s Wholesale Club and wondered what to buy. In the parking lot, a U-Haul truck waited for Erlbaum to fill it with food. “My plan,” Erlbaum says, “was to spend $50 on each family and deliver the food directly to their houses.”
By working with Rabbi Menachem Schmidt of Chabad in Center City, Erlbaum had gotten requests from 19 Jewish families — recent Russian immigrants — for assistance with food. “Within three months, the number of requests jumped to 60,” Erlbaum says. “We decided to put a note in each box, in Russian and English, telling people to call us if they needed food.”
Erlbaum received 1,000 calls in two days. The need, he realized, was tremendous. With a lot of heart and chutzpah — but no formal background in developing a nonprofit — Erlbaum created the Jewish Relief Agency. By September 2001, JRA was delivering monthly food packages to 1,000 families. And the organization has continued to grow.
In 2006, Daniel Erlbaum, Marc’s younger brother, and yet another member of the philanthropic Erlbaum family (including parents, Gary and Vicki), took over as chairman of JRA’s board. Today, JRA feeds 3,000 Jewish homes monthly with the help of 800 Jewish volunteers who gather at the JRA warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia to box and deliver the packages.
In 2011, a new component of JRA was introduced: JRAid. “It’s an online platform that connects volunteers to micro-volunteer opportunities,” Daniel Erlbaum explains. “The families we feed can call an 800 number and list their other needs, like transportation or getting something fixed in their home. Those needs get put into a database so that volunteers can see who needs what, and fulfill those needs.”
In 2012, JRA expanded beyond Philadelphia. “We now deliver in central New Jersey, southern Jersey, Miami and soon Boston, Atlanta and Montreal,” says Marc Erlbaum, who is also an acclaimed filmmaker. “We are creating a tikkun olam franchise with volunteers who want to bring JRA to their areas.”