Jodi Roth-Saks stepped into the role of executive director at the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) on Nov. 1 and has been busy working on the organization’s distributions, getting to know board members and staff and planning the annual fundraiser, which is Dec. 6.
Her first distribution event as executive director was also the organization’s biggest, with more than 1,000 volunteers preparing and delivering 3,375 food boxes on Nov. 11.
“It was very soon after I started, but it was really exciting,” Roth-Saks said. “I had such a wonderful and warm welcoming from our community and our volunteers and the board. It was so terrific to be able to start this leadership position with that type of excitement and energy.”
Roth-Saks comes to the position from West Chester University, where she spent the last six years as the director of the department of service-learning and volunteer programs. She also served as a co-chair of the university’s Jewish life advisory board.
JRA provides 6,000 low-income people in the Philadelphia area with a monthly box of nonperishable foods.
At the monthly distribution events, hundreds of volunteers head to the JRA warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia to help prepare and distribute those boxes.
JRA also has programs to give its recipients birthday cards, as well as new programs that provide recipients everyday essentials like toothbrushes and deodorant and healthy child-friendly foods to those who have children.
“I’m so incredibly excited to be a part of such an amazing organization,” Roth-Saks said. “The passion, the enthusiasm that I see in our volunteers is really moving, and I’m also seeing firsthand what an amazing impact we’re having on our clients.”
JRA Board of Directors chair Daniel Erlbaum said he hopes the organization can continue to grow its operations under Roth-Saks’ leadership.
“Jodi brings the experience that we are looking for in terms of being a seasoned leader, as well as having a tremendous social-service background,” Erlbaum said. “That’s based on her experience. We spoke to people who had been partners of hers when she was at West Chester University and people who had reported to her. It’s hard to imagine people speaking more glowingly of a human being than she was spoken about by those that she had interacted with in her prior positions.”
Roth-Saks said she has always been interested in Jewish professional and tikkun olam roles. She grew up in northern New Jersey, and watching her family vote and participate in the Jewish Federation inspired her own engagement.
She studied sociology at Colorado State University, and the Hillel director encouraged her to apply for the Jewish Campus Service Corps fellowship through Hillel International, a program that used to send recent graduates to work at Hillels around the country.
Through the fellowship, Roth-Saks spent the next two years at Oregon Hillel and the University of Delaware Kristol Center for Jewish Life, helping students get involved in their communities.
“Working with college students and inspiring them, they were having these amazing ‘aha’ moments,” Roth-Saks said. “It was just really moving. Watching them work with all different types of individuals who were living in poverty or working with social service agencies, seeing how they were making a significant positive impact in the community was also really inspiring. It was this beautiful chorus of making a positive difference in the community.”
She went on to get her master’s degree in student affairs and higher education at the University of Connecticut.
She then went to Sonoma State College near San Francisco, where she worked for four years as a community services coordinator, connecting students and faculty to service opportunities.
Six years ago, she moved to Philadelphia, filling a similar role at West Chester.
Her proudest accomplishment is creating the WCU Resource Pantry, which supports hundreds of low-income students with perishable and nonperishable food, a career closet and financial literacy classes. She worked with students whose families depended on SNAP and who were unsure how to use their loan money, students who had aged out of the foster care system and LGBTQ students who has lost the support of their families. Roth-Saks has consulted with other universities to develop their own resource pantries.
She also facilitated large-scale volunteer projects, including the annual MLK Day of Service, where she organized more than 500 community members. She said this experience will translate well to JRA.
“I’m excited to … be raising a family alongside working at the Jewish Relief Agency, so my kids can grow up doing mitzvahs with other Jews on a monthly basis through our distributions,” Roth-Saks said. “I’m so excited about that and then sharing that with my community and getting more of my friends and family involved as well.”