One Sunday a month, the Lipsteins -- Rebecca, her brother Zach, 10, and parents Francine and Bob -- make the trek from Bryn Mawr to Northeast Philadelphia to lend a hand to those in need. For five years now, they've been regular volunteers at the Jewish Relief Agency, a hunger and food insecurity relief program that provides an average of more than 17 tons of non-perishable food to needy families each month.
Bleary eyed -- but enjoying herself -- Rebecca spent the morning at JRA's warehouse alongside her family and friends from school before going out into the community to make deliveries. Helping out at JRA, she said, "is in our blood."
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, the Lipsteins were one of hundreds of families wanting to give something back to those in need.
Next year, the JRA will mark its 10th anniversary. What began as a small operation -- three guys buying food in bulk and delivering to 19 families -- has blossomed into one of the most successful hunger-relief programs in the region. Staffers say that they regularly get calls from all over the country looking to replicate JRA's methods.
Though the original plan was to provide food relief abroad, the focus shifted to helping the needy in Philadelphia -- and because of current economic conditions, need is as high as it has ever been.
While 10 percent of JRA's volunteers and recipients are non-Jews, said executive director Amy Krulik, the organization has a decidedly Jewish slant: All the food is kosher, the work is funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, a JRA co-founder, offers a brief dvar Torah at each packing session.
One of the most striking elements of JRA is how it draws from all segments of the community, regardless of age, geography, economic status or denomination.
While some participants are very observant Jews, said Krulik, there's also a large number for whom their biggest connection to the community is coming to JRA one Sunday a month.
Some 875 people turned out for the Nov. 15 packing and distribution. About 100 more people have been volunteering each month this year than last. Krulik attributed the uptick to the president's focus on volunteerism and the recession.
"When the economy isn't so great, people are looking for ways to give back to the community," said Krulik.
Whatever the reasons, the group needs these added packers and drivers because the need in the community has also risen. JRA delivers to about 2,700 recipient families, and every month about 25 new households are added to that figure -- up from 15 new households per month in 2008. More than 40 percent of the new recipients are families with children; in addition, the number of clients who report that they are unemployed has jumped from 13 percent to 20 percent in 2009.
The organization works out of a 12,000-square-foot warehouse. With high ceilings and massive doors -- and filled with hundreds of people -- the space was a hive of activity during the November distribution.
Each JRA volunteer was given an empty box, then moved through an assembly line as other volunteers packed it with food: a box of pasta at one station, canned veggies at the next, and pasta sauce at another. The carton was then closed and placed on a palate stacked several feet high with boxes, which were then taken behind the warehouse, loaded into cars and distributed to clients.
"We could probably pack the boxes quicker with less people and a conveyor belt, but ultimately this builds community," JRA board member Greg Jaron said as he surveyed the organized pandemonium in the warehouse.
A Family of Newcomers
This was the first time the Seif family of Bala Cynwyd had visited JRA. While standing in line to fill another box, father Yehuda said that the gang came down as a way to get the kids into volunteerism.
"What better way to spend a Sunday with the kids?" said Seif. "It's either this or the zoo."
Seif had some help from his son Abie, 6, who stayed close at dad's side while they waited in line. Abie carried the box for as long as he could, but said that "when it gets too heavy, I pull it."
All recipients get an average of about 15 pounds of food, this month including sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving. It's intended to provide about 4 days worth of meals, depending on a family's size.
The organization pays for those items out of an annual budget of just under $1 million, about 25 percent of which comes from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The rest comes from private donors and foundations as well as public funds. The group gets assistance from Pennsylvania's State Food Purchase Program, although due to the state budget crisis earlier this year, JRA has not gotten any funding from them since June -- a loss of about $19,000 a month.
When the packing is completed, hundreds of volunteers -- from toddlers to the elderly to those on crutches and in wheelchairs -- head out on 283 different delivery routes, each with detailed directions and instructions. About 60 percent of the recipients live in the greater Northeast region.
"It shocks people how many boxes we deliver to Bryn Mawr" and other tony neighborhoods, said Krulik.
Marc Erlbaum, a co-founder of JRA, observed that while it's a little crazy having so many in the warehouse, "we need this many people out on the roads."
"JRA delivery," Francine Lipstein called out as she knocked on the lavender door with a mezuzah.
The Lipsteins had 12 deliveries to make at the Robert Saligman House in Northeast Philadelphia, a project of Federation Housing, Inc. Barely a quarter of the recipients were home as the family walked together from door to door on the fourth floor. All along the hall, residents -- many of them Russians -- poked their heads out of their apartment doors to see if the deliveries were for them.
Those that were home were very appreciative. Francine and Rebecca stepped inside one apartment for a brief chat as the resident told Rebecca, a recent Bat Mitzvah, about a relative's Bat Mitzvah not long ago in her native Russia.
Both Lipstein parents noted that making time at JRA a family outing emphasizes that you can give back by giving of your time and effort, and it doesn't cost a cent.
"Many people think that if they don't have a lot, they can't do something to help the community," said Francine. "JRA disproves that."
Hunger at Its Most Dire
While many Americans are preparing to reflect on bounty and abundance as Thanksgiving nears, the Department of Agriculture has released a study showing that hunger and food insecurity in America is at a 14-year high, with 49 million people -- including 17 million children -- struggling to get enough to eat.
Those numbers represent 14.6 percent of all households and are a 3.5 percent increase from 2007. The study released this week reflects the most dire situation of its kind since the USDA began keeping track of food insecurity in 1995.
The need for food relief has not escaped the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In addition to increased funding for relief programs, the organization has commissioned its own study on Jewish hunger, long one of Federation's top priorities, according to Ira Schwartz, Federation's CEO. The study should be released before the end of the year.
Along with the Jewish Relief Agency (610-660-0190, www.jewishrelief.org ), there are other Jewish groups in the Philadelphia area working to fight hunger:
The Mitzvah Food Project: The Federation agency provides monthly supplemental food distributions to those in need at five locations across the region, including the Kaiserman, Klein and Stiffel Center JCCs, at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and at Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County in Bensalem. (215-832-0531, www.jewishphilly.org )
Jewish Family & Children's Service: In addition to helping clients apply for aid (whether public or through the auspices of Jewish groups), some JFCS clients receive monthly supermarket gift cards worth up to $150 to help supplement their income. (267-256-2100, www.jfcsphil.org )
For further information on support services that are available from Jewish organizations, contact Jewish Information & Referral Service. (215-832-0821, www.jewishphilly.org )
Philabundance: This city-wide group offers its own distribution services to the needy and also helps other hunger relief groups acquire food. (215-339-0900, www.philabundance.org )
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP: Formerly known as the Food Stamps program. (1-800-692-7462, www.fns.usda.gov/FSP )