For JRA Honorees, A Night of Sweet Relief

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The Jewish Relief Agency (JRA), honors  three local families at its Dec. 2 event at Sherman Mills in East Falls. 

When they look back, Jen and Nate Hoffman say it was simply something to do to bring their family together. They never realized they would become trailblazers along the way, let alone be honored for it. When they look ahead — now that those once little children they regularly schlepped along have grown up — they say not only do they intend to continue, but hope their story can inspire others to follow their lead.
 
That’s what their volunteer work with the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA), which honored the Hoffman family as well as senior volunteers Betty Graboyes and Sol Volen at its Dec. 2 event at Sherman Mills in East Falls, has meant to all of them. 
 
“We’re beyond humbled by this honor,” said Jen, who originally thought she was being asked to chair the event rather than being singled out. “We’re just a simple family looking to teach our kids that not everyone is as fortunate as they are. JRA is the perfect place to teach them the lesson of mitzvah. Matthew was 8, Drew was 12 and Alexa was 15. They were little kids — to them, it was an adventure.”
 
It turned out to be so much more than that through the years. “The first couple of months, it was dragging them along until somewhere along the way it became a family adventure,” recalled Nate.
 
“After that, there was no more dragging. We all wanted to go. The fun wasn’t just in the packing and delivering of the food; it was in the time you spent together as a family. How much family time do you get this day and age? To get 45 minutes each way in the car with our kids once a month was the best time we spent together — it gave us an opportunity to catch up with our kids. You found out who their girlfriends were, where they wanted to go to college — over the years, you’d find out everything you want about your kids in those car rides.”
 
Plus, they were delivering food to needy men and women — usually of Russian, Ukranian or Polish descent — in the Northeast. Because the Hoffmans made it a point to get to know those people on a personal basis, it led to a change in JRA policy. 
 
“Some organizations honor philanthropists,” said JRA executive director Amy Krulik. “We’re looking for people who represent the heart of JRA. They were the inspiration behind what we call our ‘route’ program. Jen was really interested in having a relationship with the people she was delivering to and so we made it possible for her to deliver to the same people every month. Now there are 80 families who are route owners. It was the start of a revolution.”
 
They never intended to be “revolutionaries.” “It’s a hands-on approach, so there’s immediate gratification,” explained Nate. “You see their faces light up when they open the door and you hand them a box.
 
“They’re just so happy to see you.”
 
It left an indelible mark on their children as well. “I didn’t know much about it when we started,” said 20-year-old Matthew, who was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah back then. “But going through the whole process and meeting the people in JRA, they became close to us. Getting to know more people has been a part of something great.”
 
Although it did take awhile before they realized it. “The first few times, I definitely thought it was a hassle,” admitted now 24-year-old Alexa. “Then it became more fun and something we actually wanted to do instead of something we were forced to do. My parents have always been role models for me and my brothers. They definitely deserve this.”
 
So do 90-year-old Betty Graboyes, who helps with the packing, and 89-year-old Sol Volen, who still makes deliveries in his own car. “You don’t always recognize people who are older,” said Krulik, who efficiently made sure the formal presentations took less than an hour. “But they’ve been right in the thick of things every month. Betty comes and helps in the warehouse. Sol’s still making deliveries to people all over the Northeast who are in need.”
 
But there are so many like them. With six offices — Philadelphia, South Jersey, Metrowest New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Greenwich, Conn., and Chicago — JRA now enlists over 14,000 volunteers and delivers to some 3,200 families. 
 
Since they couldn’t single all of them out they chose the Hoffmans, who said it should actually be the other way around. “We’re a very typical, non-special family, which is why this is such a shock,” said Jen. “We wanted to do something good for the community, wanted to do something Jewishly and do something together and show our kids the real world.”
 
Moments later, after they were presented a special ornate tzedekah box in appreciation for their efforts, she summed it all up. “Sometimes you look back on certain things you did and wonder if you had the chance would you do them all over again,” she said during her acceptance speech. “But I’m certain that JRA is something we got right.” 
 
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com 215-832-0729 
 

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