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'An Opportunity to Do a Mitzvah'

November 23, 2005 By:
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When Jewish Family Services opened its doors just three blocks from her home in Northeast Philadelphia, Bertha Rabinowitch marched right in and offered to volunteer. Every Wednesday she'd help out those in need with their income-tax returns.

Now, more than 35 years since that day - she couldn't remember exactly how long - Rabinowitch is still volunteering for the organization, known today as Jewish Family and Children's Service.

(In 1983, Jewish Family Service merged with the Association for Jewish Children, creating the current organization.)

Since that first day helping out, Rabinowitch has had a hand in all different sorts of jobs, including helping Russian immigrants find apartments back in the '80s to the work she currently does, which involves calling people who live alone just to chat and be a phone friend.

"What didn't I do?" posed Rabinowitch rhetorically. "I name what I did in just a few simple words, but the experiences that I had dealing with the people were just unbelievable."

Rabinowitch was able to reunite with JFCS board members, staff, volunteers, social workers and former clients at the agency's Nov. 13 reunion. The morning brunch at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology gave old friends and even some new ones an opportunity to mix and mingle, and view memorabilia from the organization's 150-year history.

'Every Day an Opportunity'
Today, JFCS annually serves more than 41,000 individuals and families - both Jewish and non-Jewish - throughout greater Philadelphia with an array of programs, including adoption, child welfare, chaplaincy, counseling and case management, critical-needs services and services for the elderly. A recently unveiled new initiative, Phill 'er Up Philly, will provide financial assistance to those families who, in the face of rising fuel prices, cannot cover the cost of home heating or gasoline bills.

"Every contact is spiritually rewarding, and it makes me feel good to be able to perform mitzvahs and participate in tikkun olam," said 76-year-old Larry Kovnat, an attendee at the event who started as a volunteer tutor 25 years ago. Since then, he has visited Jewish inmates, HIV/AIDS patients, nursing homes and the homebound. "Every day and every person is an opportunity to do a mitzvah."

After the 120 or so guests were given a chance to catch up, they sat down for a short program consisting of remarks and reflections from chairpeople, board members and staff.

"I'm enjoying this so much because it's nice to see people enjoying themselves, and saying hello to people they haven't seen in whatever period of time," said Curt Pontz, chair of the reunion celebration. "It's a nice scene, as are most reunions. Agencies don't do them very often."

An unexpected attendee also offered the crowd a boost. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell came to thank the volunteers and board members for their hard work, and for continuing the longevity of the organization. In the wake of proposed federal budget cuts to social-service programs, Rendell spoke about the need to have volunteers dedicated to good causes.

"[Cuts in government services] wind up hurting the country, hurting the state, hurting the city and the most vulnerable of our population," he said. "Bottom line of this: It puts significant increased pressure on agencies like Jewish Family and Children's Service to do their job better and to raise more money privately."

Rendell congratulated the group on the anniversary, and lauded those gathered for the varied contributions they've made.

To some, though, the opportunity to help was thanks enough.

"All the experiences?" chimed in Rabinowitch. "I should write a book."

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