You Should Know…Elvera Schwartz

Elvera Schwartz is a white woman with long brown hair wearing a suit jacket and white blouse, standing outside beneath a tree.
Elvera Schwartz | Courtesy of Elvera Schwartz

Last week, Elvera Schwartz celebrated four years working at Jewish Relief Agency, a volunteer-led nonprofit supplying food and other necessities to those in the Philadelphia area who need it.

As the organization’s director of communications and technology, the 28-year-old Bala Cynwyd resident is responsible for getting the word out about JRA’s volunteer opportunities and events. Because the nonprofit relies heavily on volunteers, Schwartz’ job is vital. Most recently, JRA hosted a food-packing event as part of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Community Mitzvah Day to celebrate Israel 75.

Schwartz is also responsible for running JRA’s volunteer management system, which a volunteer created 20 years ago and was updated during the pandemic. The system now allows volunteers to sign in on their phones upon arriving at JRA’s Northeast Philadelphia warehouse and use their online accounts to easily access their delivery routes. Volunteers can give real-time feedback to JRA staff using the system.

“We’re really, a very small staff, so making things quicker, faster, easier — it’s really important for us so we can focus on some of these more time-consuming projects, like making sure that every person in the community, and especially Jewish community, who needs food, has food,” Schwartz said.

The cause is personal to Schwartz. Born in Philadelphia to Ukrainian immigrants, Schwartz grew up hearing the stories of her family’s struggles in the former Soviet Union and the United States.

“My dad was not shy to tell me stories when they first came here,” Schwartz said. “He would end up standing on Roosevelt Boulevard and selling flowers off the boulevard, trying to make some extra cash.”

Schwartz’ parents fled Kyiv’s antisemitism and arrived in Philadelphia in 1994 with Schwartz’ 5-year-old sister and just two duffel bags in tow. Schwartz’ great-aunt sponsored the family. When the family welcomed Schwartz to the world a year later, she was dubbed a “welcome-to-America gift.”

The family struggled in the early years in the U.S., waiting in line for welfare and food stamps.

When Schwartz was first introduced to JRA as a volunteer in 2018, she learned that many of the organization’s 6,000 clientele in about 3,400 households were Russian and Ukrainian refugees. She had an epiphany.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if JRA existed in 1994, when they came over, my family would have definitely been receiving food boxes,’” Schwartz said.

Schwartz believes her parents struggled so she and her sister didn’t have to, but the lessons of survival were still passed down.

“Nothing is handed to you.” Schwartz said. “You have to work for what you want.”

Having spent her childhood in Southwest Virginia, Schwartz didn’t have a strong knowledge of Judaism or sense of Jewish community. She was one of four Jewish kids at her high school, and her parents’ experience with antisemitism in Ukraine meant the family’s relationship with Judaism was fraught.

The first-generation Ukrainian-American decided to stay close to home and matriculated at James Madison University in 2013, where she studied communications. As a freshman wanting to connect with her Jewish heritage, Schwartz attended a Chabad dinner, where she sat across from her now-husband. 

Over her college years, her love for Judaism grew, and, in 2015, Schwartz served as the communications intern for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., before heading back to Philadelphia.

While working at Jewish Heritage Programs at the University of Pennsylvania, Schwartz was introduced to Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, who co-founded JRA with Marc Erlbaum in 2000. He encouraged Schwartz to spend a day volunteering with JRA to distribute food. Schwartz had lived in the city for six months and was eager for opportunities to make friends.

When Schwartz walked into the warehouse that first day, she immediately was drawn to the organization.

“I was just overwhelmed with how homey it felt in that space,” she said. “Looking around and seeing so many Jewish individuals in the space … already connecting with all these people on this level, was just very moving for me.”

Schwartz spent her first day at JRA dropping off boxes of food to about 10 community members, where her speaking Russian came in handy. When a communications position opened up at the nonprofit a few months later, Schwartz didn’t hesitate to apply.

“I really felt like this was my community,” she said. “These are my people. This is what I want to do.”

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