An Inside Look At Jewish Relief Agency’s Volunteer Efforts

Standing in front of a trailer, a white man wearing a button up and shorts supervises two teenager loading up the trailer with boxes.
David Kent and his son and nephew packing up his trailer with boxes of food to deliver to JRA clients | Photos by Sasha Rogelberg

Attached to the back of David Kent’s compact car is a large storage trailer he borrowed from his dad, who uses it to carry equipment back and forth from dog shows.

But rather than being filled with canine supplies, Kent’s trailer was filled with boxes full of food on July 8, stacked neatly by his teenage son and nephew. For the past three years, Kent, a Horsham resident, has volunteered with Jewish Relief Agency, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit combating hunger in the area by providing food to over 3,400 low income households and 6,000 individuals in the area.

For one week out of each month, the organization hosts volunteers at their North Philadelphia warehouse, where dozens of individuals pack and deliver boxes to be dropped off across 90 zip codes. The organization serves mostly elderly clients, 73% of whom are over 65 and 65% of whom are Jewish. Many are Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.

“People are always very grateful for getting what JRA provides,” Kent said. “It’s a really valuable service. I think it’s something that we can tell is needed, that we can tell is of terrific value to the people involved.”

Like all organizations, JRA has been impacted by the pandemic, having to change their volunteer model and accommodate growing demand for food from those impacted by COVID. But even through the nonprofit’s struggles and adaptation, one thing has remained the same: Those who show up are excited to be there and happy to help.

Every Little Bit Matters

Inside the warehouse, about a dozen volunteers begin loading up 3,200 food boxes to be distributed for the month.

It was an unusual day; JRA was a bit ahead of schedule thanks to the summer camps who were there on Wednesday and Thursday assembling and packing boxes. While most deliveries happen Sunday through Tuesday, the packing happens the Thursday to Sunday prior, with a break for Shabbat on Saturday.

That week, campers from Camp Galil, Camp Canadensis, Camp Ramah Day Camp and Camp Moshava Ba’ir came to volunteer, their first time returning to JRA since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The campers are high energy and a lot of fun,” Executive Director Jodi Roth-Saks said. “We’re so glad they came out to volunteer.”

Over the summer, when volunteer numbers wane, JRA relies on professional groups and summer camps for help. 

“Our whole program relies on volunteer power,” Roth-Saks said. “It’s really essential that we recruit from the community.”

A white woman in a tank top, shorts and mask loaded dry foods into boxes stacked on a cart.
First time volunteer and JEVS Ash intern Ella Spencer packs boxes.

JEVS Human Services Franklin C. Ash Summer Interns were at the warehouse Friday learning the ropes from the more seasoned volunteers.

“Food is such an essential thing for us as humans, and no one should be restricted from that,” said intern Ella Spencer. “It’s great that I’m able to help contribute.”

Set up like an assembly line, volunteers walk down rows set up in the warehouse, grabbing cans of fruit and tuna, boxes of oatmeal and pasta, and toilet paper rolls to pack in 12-pound boxes. Volunteers place a yellow slip with instructions — in both English and Russian — on how to contact JRA and a recipe to make with the box’s ingredients on top of the packed goods.

Families with young children may get a bag stuffed with chips, granola bars and kid-friendly snacks. Some get custom-packed bags with diapers, shampoo or menstrual products. JRA works with the Greater Philadelphia Diaper Bank and Cradles to Crayons to distribute items for younger children.

“We partner with several agencies in Philadelphia who provide much-needed diapers, incontinence supplies, children’s clothing and school essentials that are delivered by our volunteers directly to our recipients along with their food boxes,” JRA Chief of Operations Julie Roat said.

As volunteers continue to pack, Arthur Davis stands out from the crowd in his neon yellow t-shirt. A volunteer at JRA since the opening of their warehouse in 2007, Davis is quick to lend a helping hand to the newbies; after all, he used to be one of them.

The Old York Road Temple Beth Am member was recruited by a friend several years ago to come volunteer at JRA. The first time his friend asked him to volunteer, Davis didn’t show up.

“He said to me, ‘I tell you what: I’m going to come pick you up next time, and I will continue to knock on your door until you either come or you call the police,’” Davis said.

Davis showed up to volunteer the next opportunity and has been showing up ever since. He’s a believer in the work JRA does, but he’s a bigger believer in the volunteers. Before COVID, Davis recalled attending a Sunday packing day with over 1,100 volunteers. 

Even as JRA tries to recruit more help, Davis believes in the power of showing up. He marveled at the stacks of assembled boxes lining the warehouse walls, singing the praises of the campers who spent the day assembling them. 

“If you bring yourself, and you bring family members, especially bringing children, they learn, ‘What is this all about?’” Davis said. “Then that’s what makes the world a better place. Because that becomes something that becomes instinctive to people, and that’s what helps these kinds of things to grow.”

A white man in jeans and a neon yellow short stands in front of large block letters that read "JRA".
Volunteer and Old York Road Temple Beth Am member Arthur Davis, who has volunteered
at the JRA warehouse for 15 years

Meeting People Where They’re At

The JRA office adjacent to the warehouse is no less quiet than the warehouse. Behind the front desk, JRA staff are blowing up beach balls and inflatable palm trees.

“We’re doing theme distributions for the summer months,” said Volunteer Program Manager Jenny Rubin. So this month is ‘Beach Day at JRA’…It boosts morale; it gives us an opportunity to be a little silly and play around during the summer.”

Having themed volunteer days on Sunday is just a small part of Rubin’s work to engage JRA volunteers. 

Low volunteer numbers have been a nationwide problem exacerbated by the pandemic, Rubin said.

“Everyone had a long, hard look at their priorities, and a lot of their habits also changed during the pandemic,” she said. “We’re serving more people than we were previously, with half or even fewer than half of the [volunteers] we’ve had previously.”

JRA has relied largely on word-of-mouth to generate greater volunteer turnout. They reach out to synagogues, summer camps, professional development groups, schools and college Greek life to see if they’d be interested in volunteering.

While Rubin’s work is ongoing, the reimagined volunteer schedule has helped better accommodate volunteers who want to keep showing up. Now that volunteer days are held for an entire week rather than only Sunday prior to the pandemic, summer camps are able to schedule private packing days; retired folks enjoy coming in on the weekdays when the warehouse is less crowded.

Instead of just schmoozing, eating a bagel and packing a couple boxes during volunteer hours, people come ready to work.

“Though we have fewer people in the space, we are able to get so much done,” Rubin said. “Everyone who comes leaves feeling really accomplished because they’re doing more physical labor throughout the day.”

Clients with Diverse Needs

At a foldable table, a JRA staff member blows up rainbow colored beach balls.
JRA staff prepares for the “Beach Day at JRA” themed distribution

As Rubin works to expand JRA’s volunteer base, Program Specialist Rachel Steinerman works to engage JRA’s client base, especially in the Orthodox community.

“JRA has grown so much, and we help anybody who comes to us, who asks us for help, as long as they’re within our delivery area,” Steinerman said. “But as those Jewish clients have aged, and unfortunately passed away, we started an initiative with our Jewish community outreach to reach every single Jewish family — since we are the Jewish Relief Agency — for anybody who needs our services.”

In particular, Orthodox community members may have different dietary needs than the rest of JRA’s population. 

It’s Steinerman’s job to speak with clients, including Orthodox community members, to address their needs.

But along with food and additional supplies, JRA also provides clients with an intangible gift: meaningful human interaction.

For older community members isolated by the pandemic, a box of goods accompanied by a quick chat lifts spirits substantially.

Elvera Gurevich, JRA’s director of communications and technology, finds this element of working at JRA the most rewarding. A first generation Ukrainian immigrant, Gurevich personally relates to many of JRA’s clients. 

“Had there been a JRA when my parents first came here, we would have been getting boxes of food,” she said. “I could really empathize and see myself in that, so that’s what attracted me to the agency.”

Though not a large part of Gurevich’s job, she still enjoys delivering boxes — sometimes only one or two — to clients each month.

“That just like helps me stay motivated, too, because I get really focused on logistics and efficiency and operations,” Gurevich said. “It’s a nice reminder of ‘Who are we helping? What are we really doing here?’”

Last month, Gurevich delivered a box to a Russian-speaker who was eager to speak with her, asking her where she was from, how she knew how to speak Russian.

“I was able to just chat with her for five minutes,” Gurevich said. “And you could see her face just light up.”

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