Click on Google, or any of the other search engines on the Web, and you'll receive a plethora of responses to your request for information on Jewish organizations in the Greater Philadelphia area. To find out which organization offers the program or service that best meets your needs, you'll ultimately have to talk to a human being.
The Jewish Information and Referral Service, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, may be low-tech but it's also highly efficient. One call to 215-832-0821 ensures that you'll receive prompt and personal assistance from director Linda Roth, assistant director Sandi Brecher or one of the service's many friendly volunteers.
"For 22 years, JIRS has been providing information about local and national Jewish organizations, as well as non-Jewish social service agencies, for the cost of a phone call," said Roth, adding that "if the answer to the caller's question is not at our fingertips, we'll do the necessary research and get back in touch."
Roth has been involved with the organization for 21 of those 22 years, helping to set up and maintain the database. For the first 11 years of her tenure, Roth volunteered her time, learning from Lillian Youman, JIRS director, "how to ask the right questions to help people find the programs and services they are looking for." Roth became director last year after Youman's retirement.
JIRS maintains the Jewish community calendar, listing every event of Jewish interest in the Greater Philadelphia region and provides information for The Guide to Jewish Greater Philadelphia, a comprehensive directory of programs, organizations, services and businesses that engage Jewish consumers. The Guide is published each September by the Jewish Exponent.
While Roth cautions that neither she nor her fellow JIRS staffers are trained social workers, they can sometimes transform lives by making the right referrals. She recalls receiving a phone call from an older couple, who, on the surface, appeared to be fairly comfortable financially.
"However when they described their needs and expenses it became clear that, even with their fairly substantial income, they were living beyond their means due to their chronic health issues," she said. "The husband has Parkinson's disease, and the wife severe osteoporosis. Both required assistance in the home and with transportation and their medicines alone cost over $10,000 each year."
Despite their medical problems, the couple was fiercely independent and called JIRS to find out whether there was some way they could remain in their home. "We encouraged the couple to call Jewish Family and Children's Service and work with a case manager to help them figure out their options," said Roth.
In today's depressed economy, Roth and her staff are fielding a number of calls from people who are facing the threat of evictions from their apartments or shut-offs of their utilities. She maintains a list of grassroots organizations that help individuals to work out payment plans.
On the lighter side, JIRS can provide information about Adult Education classes, tell you how to get a scholarship to summer camp or a travel program to Israel, help you find shops that sell Judaica, Israeli jewelry and other specialized merchandise, give you information about Jewish places in foreign countries and help finding a place to volunteer or a home for your donated goods.
One of Roth's happiest tasks is to welcome new families to the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community through the distribution of Shalom Baby welcome packages. Inside each package is a copy of the Jewish Exponent's Guide to Jewish Greater Philadelphia, a Shalom Baby Resource Guide, a reprint of an article on "Building a Jewish Home," a tzedakah box, a magnetic refrigerator board and small baby gifts, including a medicine dropper, an ice pack and a picture magnet, all packaged in a protective thermal bag.
"It's our pleasure to send these packages out to new families who are identified to us by area synagogues," noted Roth.
JIRS is available by calling 215-832-0821 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.