The Schwartz family’s long relationship with the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) began on a whim one Sunday morning when Eric and Rachel Schwartz dragged Eleanor, Avner and Oscar — then 1, 3 and 5, respectively — out of bed and into the car.
They made the drive to JRA’s warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia for a day that, unbeknownst to them, would shape their lives forever.
Eight years later on Dec. 6, the Schwartz family — the kids now 9, 11 and 14 — took the stage at The Franklin Institute during JRA’s Annual Event to End Hunger. The theme this year was Better Together. The family led this year’s fundraising effort, which broke the organization’s record.
It was a day that was long coming.
Since their first distribution, the family has continued to make that drive to Northeast Philadelphia regularly, and the next distribution event on Dec. 16 will be the family’s 50th.
“Yeah,” said Rachel Schwartz, who also serves on the JRA board, “it’s incredible.”
JRA is a nonprofit that delivers monthly boxes of food to thousands of diverse recipients in need across the Philadelphia area.
At the family’s first distribution event, the family stepped into the warehouse and saw an assembly line of volunteers.
The place draws you in, Eric Schwartz said. There’s a festive atmosphere with music and Hebrew school students excited about missing class.
The kids spent the day going to and from the bagel room, while Eric and Rachel Schwartz filled boxes. Then they drove the car around to fill it and begin delivering boxes.
“You head out to the people who are actually going to benefit from all this, and that’s when it really starts to sink in,” Eric Schwartz said. “It was pretty eye-opening for our children to see that not everyone lives the life that they live.”
Behind each door was another face. An old woman. A family with children. Someone on a ventilator.
Rachel Schwartz began to cry.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said. “[In other volunteer work], you don’t get to see the end result, you don’t get to see where your work is going. With JRA, you do, and that’s the motivation to keep going back because you’re going back to take care of those people.”
The family returned to the JRA warehouse the next month, and the month after that, and so on.
Over the years, the number of volunteers and recipients swelled. JRA moved into a larger warehouse.
The family also changed. As the kids grew, they gradually left the bagel room and spent more time helping to package and deliver boxes of food.
“My children … see an apartment building that’s less than desirable, and many people living in one room,” Rachel Schwartz said. “That’s … different. You can tell your kids 100 times how lucky they are. They see it once a month with their own eyes when they open the door and they see a kid their age living in a room with their siblings and their parents and their grandparents and you’re handing them food.”
Oscar Schwartz also made JRA his Bar Mitzvah project — “I don’t think there was a question he would do anything else,” Rachel Schwartz said — and he brought a group of his friends to help out at a distribution event. He and his dad also helped two JRA recipients with their lawns.
He said he doesn’t remember a time before JRA.
“It makes me feel good,” Oscar said, “because you can really see how much it helps them and how important it is and how it’s not that hard to do and it makes such a difference.”
Five years ago, JRA board Chairman Daniel Erlbaum approached Rachel Schwartz about the family being honored at JRA’s Annual Event to End Hunger. Rachel Schwartz turned him down — she didn’t want the attention, she said — but Erlbaum persisted.
“The Schwartzes are as committed a family as JRA has ever known,” Erlbaum said.
She finally agreed to it this year. She said she didn’t see any reason to continue turning him down and felt like she could use her voice to raise more money for the agency.
On stage that night, the kids shared a few words and introduced their parents. The family announced it was increasing its own gift by 25 percent and invited attendees to donate to JRA.
“Eric and I strive to make a difference in our community and the world around us, however big or small that may be,” Rachel Schwartz said that evening. “We want our children to understand that we all have an obligation to help those less fortunate.”
At the end, Michael Neil, board member and former interim executive director, got on stage and invited the JRA staff and board up with him.
“Think about everything you guys have done,” Neil said. “Since 2010, you’ve volunteered more than 1,000 hours. You guys have schlepped more than 2,600 miles. You hand-delivered more than 10,000 pounds of food. But who’s really counting?
“What’s more important, what’s more significant is the kindness and care and smiles you presented to those less fortunate,” Neil said. “That’s truly the impact and the major contribution you have on our community.”
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