There were numerous Mercedes and BMWs on the suburban-style cul-de-sac — a street encircled by well-maintained single-family homes with manicured lawns.
The neighborhood looked solid and prosperous, yet the occupants of some of these homes were eligible for boxes of food from the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA), whose volunteers made monthly deliveries last weekend to coincide with the High Holidays.
The problem of food insecurity hits people all over Greater Philadelphia, from the high-rises of Rittenhouse Square to the pseudo-suburban havens of the Far Northeast.
On a recent episode of WNYC’s On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone asked an expert to direct her to “poverty central” in a big city, and was pointed toward a plasma center. Had she come to Philadelphia and asked to be directed to “hunger central,” experts would be hard pressed to give her a specific address.
The people at JRA know this, which is why the 6,400-plus recipients of their food distribution packages — 76 percent of whom identify as Jewish — include those living below the poverty line and those living above.
As the organization’s communications manager, Cedric Steenberghs, points out, there are plenty of people who don’t meet the requirements for government assistance but are, nonetheless, struggling to manage financially; they live paycheck to paycheck, and often don’t have enough left over, after bills are paid, to buy groceries.
Steenberghs explained all this the morning of Oct. 9 as the 11 members of JRA’s new young professional program gathered at the organization’s Northeast Philly warehouse on Dutton Road.
The 12-month-long JRA Leadership Academy will impart transferable nonprofit management skills and build the organization’s leadership cadre for the future.
“The program was largely conceived of by our board members, many of whom have been around since the beginning of JRA and want to ensure that the organization remains vibrant and innovative,” Steenberghs said.
It was the first monthly food distribution for the Leadership Academy, whose members circulated throughout the warehouse as it buzzed with activity: One group of volunteers built cardboard boxes while others prepped rows of kosher food, from bags of onions to Kedem biscuits. Still others directed the steady stream of people — young and old, black and white, many in Eagles jerseys — who came to help package food and then deliver it.
Josh Finer, 23, grew up in Mt. Laurel, N.J., but now lives in Center City and works at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. He heard about the Leadership Academy on Twitter.
“I was in an organization called Jewish Heritage Program, which was also created by [Rabbi] Menachem Schmidt, who’s one of the founders of JRA,” said Finer. “So I came here a couple of times, and it was such a terrific time. It was fun and you’re helping the community.” When he saw a tweet saying JRA was starting a leadership group, “it just seemed like the perfect fit. The value system here is so strong. It’s so rewarding to come here, and it’s such a strong network in terms of the Jewish community.”
That network started small, said JRA co-founder Marc Erlbaum, who conceived of it in 2000 after his parents and brothers began studying with Schmidt.
“The idea of community and giving back was certainly part of my parents’ M.O.,” said the native Philadelphian. “They were both communal leaders and involved with [Jewish] Federation and Israel Bonds. But the idea of being very hands on and giving on a daily basis was something that we really learned when we started to study with Rabbi Schmidt. So I approached Rabbi Schmidt and said, ‘I’d like to start something to get my friends involved in this kind of activity.’ I didn’t think [my friends] wanted to sit down and learn Torah per se, but I knew they would want to get involved with doing something to give back.”
Erlbaum was right.
He and his friends identified 19 needy families, went out and bought some food and rented a van.
“It was very ‘speak little and do much,’ and we learned a lot along the way. We built something through God’s help but also [because] the desire in this community to be hands on and to help people is just tremendous. … We never expected this kind of growth, but it just caught fire because people want to give with their hands more than just writing a check.”
The hands-on nature of JRA’s work is part of what appealed to 31-year-old Hani Dressler, a speech language pathologist who lives in the Graduate Hospital area and is one of the Leadership Academy members.
“I grew up in Wynnewood, in a family that always did volunteer work with the Jewish community and in Greater Philadelphia,” she said. “But what I really like about JRA is that you get instant gratification. You get to do the work and then you see where it’s going right away. You get your hands dirty. You see from the ground up how an organization works and it’s really a great place to volunteer.”
Dressler also said working with JRA has expanded her horizons.
“If you grow up in Lower Merion, you’re not always exposed to Jewish people in need in the city of Philadelphia because that’s not your day-to-day life growing up,” she said. “So to be able to give back to people in our neighborhood that are in need and to see where they live and what they would benefit from is really a unique experience that JRA offers.”
Plymouth Meeting native Hal Leshner, another Leadership Academy member, agreed. The 32-year-old, who works for a private investigation firm, said, “I personally was surprised [to learn about hunger in the Philadelphia area]. Being involved in this program, you hear the numbers. It’s not something I have to think about ever, and when you hear about the number of people who are wondering if they’re going to be able to eat on a particular day, it’s just alarming. We want to make sure nobody has to wake up in the morning and wonder if they’re going to have a meal to eat that day.”
Leshner came to JRA through volunteering with Jewish Federation, and he’s planning to stick with it.
“At this stage of my life, I’m in a better situation to help, and eventually, one day, I’ll be the person that’s being helped. So I just want to continue it and help it keep going.”
That long-term view is part of what Erlbaum was looking for when he and his colleagues conceived of the Leadership Academy.
“When we started the organization 16 years ago, we were young,” Ehrlbaum said. “But we’ve aged over the years, we’ve had kids, and we felt it was time to start engaging the next generation of leaders in this.”
It’s a very particular kind of leadership, though.
After all, Erlbaum said, “JRA was not born out of a desire to lead; it was born out of a desire to serve.”
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