BALA CYNWYD The Jewish Relief Agency started in 2000 with three men handing out food to 16 needy families. It has blossomed into a volunteer corps of 15,000, with about 1,000 each month dispensing 3,100 packages to hungry residents of the Philadelphia area.
This month, the organization planned to celebrate a milestone: its bar mitzvah. But the Dec. 8 party at the Valley Forge Sheraton that was supposed to mark the charity's 13th birthday - and, in light of major government-funding cuts, help pay for the food it distributes - was canceled because of unexpectedly heavy snow that day.
So the fund-raiser went online, where the JRA is raffling off a new car. By March 9, it hopes to sell 1,000 tickets, which cost $100 each or three for $250.
If the organization meets its goal, the proceeds would go a long way toward making up for money the agency used to receive from the state and federal governments. At its peak, government funding accounted for $300,000 of the charity's $1.2 million annual budget, according to Amy Krulik, JRA's executive director. Last year, it was down to $180,000. This year, it was zero.
Meanwhile, families receiving food stamps nationwide saw their benefits cut in November and face further reductions, so demand for food from private charities such as the JRA continues to rise.
"We need to work harder to get people who are able and capable to step up to do what the government can't do," said Daniel Erlbaum, chairman of the JRA board.
So far, Erlbaum said, the JRA has sold 125 raffle tickets for a 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport SUV, which Colonial Hyundai of Downingtown has donated. The vehicle's manufacturer's suggested retail price ranges from $24,750 to $35,450, depending on options. Tickets are available at www.makinglemonaid.org.
The drawing will be held March 9 at JRA's food distribution warehouse in Philadelphia.
The agency also has completed an online auction of items that would have been offered for purchase at the bar mitzvah party, raising $7,000.
When the organizers decided to cancel the event two weeks ago, the hotel room was already paid for and decorated, the food ordered, the videographer standing ready. So the pastrami and other dishes for 550 guests went to a Philadelphia homeless shelter. The videographer made a tape of about a dozen people going through the night's program, then put it online for those who missed it.
That night, Erlbaum said, he and his brother Marc, founder of the organization, came up with the theme of "Making LemonAID" for their ongoing fund-raising efforts.
"The whole philosophy of the organization is about taking darkness and making it light," Erlbaum said. "We viewed this occasion as the perfect opportunity to do exactly that."