Marc Erlbaum is getting ready for a very important 13-year milestone. He will celebrate the “bar mitzvah” of the Philadelphia-area Jewish Relief Agency, which he and Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, executive director of the Lubavitch House of Philadelphia and rabbi of Chabad at Vilna Congregation, also in the city, founded 13 years ago.
The program started as a three-person effort, when Erlbaum went to BJ’s Wholesale Club and bought food, which they distributed with a U-haul truck to Jewish families needing food assistance.
The numbers of those requesting food staples rose rapidly; after three monthly deliveries, they included a note—in English and Russian—in the boxes of food with a number to pass along to others who might need help. The response was huge.
“The next day, we had 1,000 calls,” says Erlbaum. “The news traveled quickly. It took them 12 months, but by the organization’s one-year anniversary, they—with the help of some 200 volunteers—finally managed to deliver to all those who had requested
assistance. Since its start, JRA has delivered a bit more than 4.6 million pounds of food with the help of 82,000 volunteers.
The organization’s sixth annual fundraising event is slated for the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 8; proceeds will help the volunteer food-relief agency continue its work. Themed as a bar mitzvah, it is being advertised with photos of Erlbaum when he was 13 (he is now 43).
The party—meant to be fun and family-oriented, according to executive director Amy Krulik—will have tables set for 500 guests. A candle-lighting ceremony will replace more traditional forms of fundraising, recognizing and honoring various groups who make their work possible.
The organization also holds food-packing activities for groups of students and young adults as chesed (acts of kindness) projects.
About Helping the Needy
Erlbaum first connected with Chabad in college. He came home to Philadelphia in the spring of his junior year to attend a semester of classes at the University of Pennsylvania so he could be near his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Leiba. He wound up engaging in Jewish studies with Schmidt, who had been coming to his house once a week to learn with Erlbaum’s parents. Flash-forward about nine years later, when he helped start the JRA in 2000.
“I wanted something that would engage my friends, and I figured it’s a good way to introduce them to communal Jewish life,” he says. “It was just about helping needy people; they could all relate to that.”
Schmidt recalls how they started off carrying large boxes up lots of flights of stairs, and then honed their practices until they settled on a system that worked. Now they service about 3,000 families a month, and Jewish organizations around Philadelphia and others pitch in, packing food between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on one Sunday morning a month and delivering it from the warehouse they rent in Northeast Philadelphia. They also hold food-packing activities for groups of students and young adults as chessed (acts of kindness) projects.
JRA has three full-time employees. But mostly, it depends on throngs of families, individuals, young professional groups, bar and bat mitzvah students, and others from the large urban and suburban community who have made it a part of their monthly routines. Some come just to pack, some just to deliver, and many do both.
In November, a total of 1,200 volunteers pitched in to help, says Erlbaum.
“You can bring your kids to pack and deliver—we have 5-, 6-year-old kids putting food in the boxes. It really imbues the idea oftzedakah [charity]” he says. “It’s very impressive. I’ve been doing it 13 years—and it’s been inspiring every time.”
Volunteers who deliver the boxes get specific directions to drop-off points; they deliver between 10 and 15 boxes on a route. They also get a list of words in Russian—“Hello,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome”—as a significant number of Jewish recipients originate from Russian-speaking countries.
“The idea is increasing acts of goodness and kindness,” says Erlbaum.
The organization is working on national expansion as well, and as such, has added locations in Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Chicago. It also has a mini-volunteerism component, started in 2011, called JRaid, which gives participants the opportunity to help people, many of them elderly, with tasks such as changing light bulbs, preparing food and filling out paperwork.
The “bar mitzvah”-themed fundraiser should be an opportunity to inspire people to learn more and help more, says Erlbaum. A bar mitzvah is about reaching a new level of maturity, and that comes with an obligation to serve the community, he explains, adding that at this point, JRA is in a position to move to even greater heights.
The new goal? “To help the Jewish community here even more and utilize all the different lessons and techniques and resources we have, and help as many people as we can in different areas, whether they’re in Philadelphia or not, or Across America, or wherever we can help.”
All ages groups lend a hand, including little Eitan Cassway.
‘It Becomes Part of Your Life’
Howard Goldstein has been involved with the JRA for about 11 years. He originally met Erlbaum at a wedding, and when he heard about the organization, he said he wanted to help out.
“It’s exciting to be a part of an incredible organization such as this,” says Goldstein, who serves on the board. “It becomes part of your life; it’s something that you do every month.”
JRA is important both in how it serves the community and also how it brings different facets of the Jewish community together, he says. He often brings his 6-year-old twin sons, who love to pitch in.
Over the years, he has also invited neighbors and college fraternity brothers to lend a hand. Goldstein, a dentist, even tells patients about it: “I talk it up with pretty much anybody. I think it’s important that people know we exist and that we do what we do.”
He says he’s looking forward to attending the big event. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, there’s going to be a lot of good food, a lot of good socializing—it’s going to be a real party.”