PHILADELPHIA (Jan. 20)
Andrew Klazmer had an important delivery to make, but he couldn’t find apartment B11. Toting a heavy box of canned goods, the 12-year-old scanned hallway after hallway, peering at faded apartment numbers in vain. Then he spotted the mezuzah.
“Mom, it’s over here,” Klazmer called out excitedly, tapping the door.
In addition to acting as an ad-hoc navigational device, the mezuzah pointed to the bond that giver and receiver share — their Jewish identity.
The Jewish Relief Agency, a Philadelphia-based food distribution outfit organized by Chabad-Lubavitch, helps the Jewish community address the poverty in its own backyard.
According to the agency’s director, Rachel Dunaief, 57,000 Jews in the Greater Philadelphia area are impoverished, based on Federal Poverty Guidelines.
The issue is present in other cities as well. A 2005 Jewish Federation of Los Angeles study found that roughly one in five Jews there, or 104,000 out of 520,000, earn less than $25,000 annually.
Another study, conducted by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and UJA-Federation of New York, concluded that poverty afflicts 21 percent of people in Jewish households in New York City and three nearby suburban counties. The poor in this region include larger Orthodox households and Russian immigrant families, the report found.
Dunaief says such numbers come as a surprise to many.
“People have stereotyped notions about who is poor,” she says. “We think of Jews as having money, but really, it could happen to anybody.”
In 2000, Marc Erlbaum and Rabbi Menachem Schmidt decided to start the project. Schmidt says the pair first considered missions abroad, but quickly shifted gears.
“We said, ‘We have enough poor people in Philadelphia, we should really start with that,’ ” Schmidt recalls.
The relief agency’s first effort drew three volunteers and provided food for 19 families. Five years later, the warehouse packs in between 400 and 600 volunteers a month, boxing enough for nearly 4,000 families.
While other organizations, such as the Los Angeles-based Mazon project, offer hunger relief to the wider community, the agency sticks specifically to Jews. Schmidt said the two ideologies are not at odds.
“We’re not shirking the responsibility we have to the world by taking care of ourselves,” he explained. “This doesn’t alleviate our responsibility, but it means we start here first.”
Those on the receiving end aren’t the only ones to benefit from the arrangement. For many, the project offers a chance for different kinds of Jews to meet and mingle. On any given Sunday, members of a fraternity rub shoulders with Chabad rabbis, young professional singles chat with synagogue presidents, and kids pitch in as well.
“We’ve managed to build an organization that spans all party lines,” Erlbaum said.
Some, like Laura Yatvin, 52, cite a sense of Jewish camaraderie.
“I work with the Latino population,” Yatvin explained. “But this is different — this is my people.”
Others praise the organization’s positive role modeling.
“It’s important for the kids to see it,” says Gary Klazmer, Andrew’s father.
Still, the operation offers only a partial solution. In addition to significant economic barriers, Dunaief says poor Jews in Philadelphia, many of whom are Russian immigrants, face linguistic and cultural challenges. Others are elderly, disabled, sick or unemployed, and many are geographically isolated.
She said the agency is working to build network of “gatekeepers” in the Russian community through which volunteers can reach out to needy Jews. The organization already collaborates with social workers and local rabbis, who run package pickup centers for recipients who prefer a bit of anonymity.