Jewish Relief Agency Expands its Mission Beyond Food Boxes

JRA volunteers pack food and other essential items to be distributed to community members at a JRA monthly food distribution. (Photo by Shannon Nicole)

The definition of relief is “assistance, especially in the form of food, clothing or money, given to those in special need or difficulty,” according to Oxford Languages and Google.

The Jewish Relief Agency’s mission is to “relieve the pangs of hunger,” per
But now the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization is expanding its mission to include the definition more generally. A recent news release explained it clearly:

“With Philadelphia food prices up 13%, topping all other U.S. cities, the Jewish Relief Agency is evolving its mission to feed a growing need for more bare necessities for food-insecure families,” it said.

“In addition to monthly food boxes, JRA now delivers kid-friendly snacks, diapers, menstrual products, adult incontinence supplies, school supplies, children’s clothing and case management services tailored to individual needs,” it continued.

“No person should have to choose between food, diapers or personal hygiene products and yet, for many, this is a daily problem. That’s why JRA is going beyond the box to deliver more bare necessities to help our recipients not only survive but also thrive with dignity,” said Jodi Roth-Saks, JRA’s executive director.

JRA serves 6,400 individuals, including 300 Holocaust survivors and 1,100 children, according to the email. At its annual fundraiser, The Fight for Relief, on Dec. 6 at The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, it raised enough money to help support its expanded mission, according to Elvera Schwartz, the organization’s director of communications.

While Schwartz did not reveal the amount raised, she did say that an anonymous donor contributed $54,000.

“The cost of services has tripled in the last couple of years,” Schwartz said.

When JRA was founded in 2000, its goal was simple: provide a box of food a month to individuals and families facing food insecurity. But over the years, “what we have learned is that families facing food insecurity are struggling with a number of other challenges as well,” Schwartz said.

This really came to light during COVID when families “were struggling to not only get food but household supplies,” she added. Additional government benefits helped JRA clients get through that time. But those ended at the beginning of 2023.

“Families who were struggling pre-pandemic are in an even worse situation now,” Schwartz said. “That, plus skyrocketing inflation, there’s a serious crisis among Philadelphians facing food insecurity.”

Due to this expanded level of need, JRA started implementing new programs.

A “family-friendly food bag,” as Schwartz calls it, delivers “kid-friendly snacks” such as granola bars, applesauce and crackers.

“Things that parents or guardians can throw into a backpack,” Schwartz said.

A summer fresh produce program distributes fresh produce to families with kids under 18. JRA rents a refrigerator to store its produce.

Those same families often need backpacks and school supplies, too. JRA used to receive them from partner agencies. But so many families were asking for them that the organization decided to fundraise for those specific items.

For the 2023-’24 school year, JRA gave out 500 backpacks with binders, paper, pens, pencils, glue sticks and colored pencils, among other items.

“There’s a different backpack for elementary-age kids versus kids in high school,” Schwartz said.

But JRA serves more than just young families.

It provides toiletries, laundry detergent, toilet paper and dish soap to recipients at a high level of need, according to the communications director. Many such recipients are seniors. Diapers and incontinent supplies are also items that JRA is going to raise money to buy.

And in the past year, JRA has launched a program to distribute menstrual products in “period packs” that go out to 420 households a month, according to Schwartz.

“We’re focused on alleviating oppressing needs for Jewish community members,” she said.

With Israel at war and antisemitism rising in the U.S., “people are intentional with where their fundraising dollars are going,” Schwartz said.

“We are grateful for community members who gave to JRA when there’s a lot of important things going on,” she added.

“I think we’re in this post-pandemic world. We’ll just continue to listen to recipients, listen to the needs that are there and provide that support,” she concluded.

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