Expanding Its Giving, JRA Marks Its ‘Bar Mitzvah’ Year


The Jewish Relief Agency lost a big fundraising opportunity when the snow got in its way. But the group is turning lemons into lemonAID.

Paul Gidaly has had an eventful and, at times, traumatic life in Europe, Israel and North America. The 88-year-old lived in Budapest when the Nazis invaded, spent time in a displaced persons camp in Vienna after the war, and lived in poverty-ridden neighborhoods in Israel. 
Gidaly, who now lives in Federation Housing in Northeast Philadelphia, said that from those experiences, “I know what is starving.”
He also knows how much an organization like the Jewish Relief Agency helps those who might otherwise have bare refrigerators and pantries. Since its founding 13 years ago, JRA has provided food for more than 4,000 people with the help of 15,000 volunteers.
The organization was slated to have a “Bar Mitzvah” fund­raising party on Dec. 8 until the first of this week’s snowstorms got in the way, forcing a cancellation.  The group, which lost a major fundraising opportunity because of the cancelation,  developed a special website, www.makinglemonaid.org, to launch a raffle and auction it had planned to hold at the event. 
In bringing people boxes of staples — such as canned tuna, pasta and fresh produce, and around the holidays, cake, challah and grape juice — the nonprofit organization provides sustenance to those who need it most. But perhaps just as important as the boxes themselves are the volunteers of all ages delivering them — they serve as reminders to recipients that there are strangers who care.
In Gidaly’s apartment building, which houses some of the organization’s primary recipients — elderly people from the former Soviet Union — he said he sees boxes in front of many doors. He has both received assistance from and volunteered for the organization, helping to pack boxes. And after his wife died some years ago, he donated hundreds of items from her wardrobe to the agency, through its JRAid wing.
“It’s a great psychological help,” said Gidaly, who was trained as a bookkeeper before the advent of computers. When he moved to Canada and eventually the United States, he had to take jobs not in his field but at a car wash and as a school bus driver. 
The mental boost to recipients is part of what Marc Erlbaum had in mind in 2000 when he and Rabbi Menachem Schmidt of Chabad drove a ­U-Haul truck to a BJ’s Wholesale Club, loaded it up with food, packed it into boxes at the Chabad center in the Northeast and delivered them to 19 families around the area. The organization has since outgrown several warehouses and, more than a year ago, established delivery operations in Cherry Hill, Morristown, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Miami. 
Erlbaum said the organization intends to expand even more. As food costs continue to rise and lawmakers consider cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, he expects the need for the services JRA provides to become greater. 
That’s why his group works so hard at fundraising, he said, “because we need to raise more money every year to accommodate the demand.”
The organization planned to use its 13th anniversary party at a hotel in King of Prussia in part to raise funds for the organization, but canceled when the weather continued to deteriorate on Sunday. Much of the food for the more than 500 people expected to attend had already been cooked, so Erlbaum and his brother Daniel picked up the trays and delivered them to St. John’s Hospice, a homeless shelter in Philadelphia.
On that snowy Sunday, the city, which, according to the Census Bureau, has more than 25 percent of its population living in poverty, had declared a Code Blue, which means shelters and city services expanded their support for homeless people.
“They definitely had lots of hungry folks, and they were extremely appreciative,” Marc Erlbaum said of the Center City shelter. Part of JRA’s effort, he said, is to build awareness of the poverty that exists in Philly.
The founder said he especially enjoys seeing the multiple generations of families who have made a habit of volunteering together at the agency’s warehouse.
Brian Newmark, his wife and two children have been boxing and delivering food each month for almost nine years now. For the last five years, they have delivered to an apartment building in West Philadelphia. They each take boxes to different floors and fight over who gets to deliver to an elderly Russian woman who always bakes something sweet for them.
“It’s something we all look forward to,” said Newmark, who lives in Villanova and helps foreign governments and corporations with their web presences. “It reminds us every month how fortunate we are.”
Dana Harris particularly appreciates the fresh potatoes, onions and carrots that come in her JRA parcel each month.The Northeast native moved from Jerusalem — where she had lived with an abusive husband — back to Philadelphia in 2010 with four small children.
The family initially crammed into her parents’ small two-bedroom apartment in the Northeast with blankets spread on the floor and children sleeping wherever they could find space.
But things have since settled down. Harris found a job at Congregation Beth Solo­mon Community Center. Her children started at Politz Hebrew Academy, with friends of her parents helping to pay tuition, and the family moved to an apartment in Rhawnhurst. 
“It inspires me to see how the Jewish people are working together to help each other,” she said of JRA. 
Harris said that now, with help from the agency, she and her children are “in a good place.” 


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