Teaneck expat Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel, feeds Israel’s hungry
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Teaneck expat Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel, feeds Israel’s hungry

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Leket volunteers glean and distribute 14 million pounds of produce annually.

Poverty and hunger were not issues Joseph Gitler encountered every day as a teenager in Teaneck. But he sat up and paid attention when Israel’s National Insurance Institute issued a report in 2002 about the stark realities of Israel’s unemployed and working poor. Having made aliyah in September 2000 with his wife and young daughter, he felt obligated to find out more.

“The numbers and the stories surrounding that report really affected me,” said Gitler. “So I decided to take action.”

Gitler, 36, is the founder/director of Leket Israel, now Israel’s largest national food bank and food-rescue network. With the help of thousands of volunteers, Leket salvages 115 tons of healthful food per week that would otherwise be destroyed. It delivers food to 40,000 Israelis every day, supplies 7,000 volunteer-prepared sandwiches daily to schoolchildren from dysfunctional homes in 24 cities, educates non-profits through nutritional seminars and food safety consultation, and maintains the country’s first food buying cooperative for more than 290 nonprofit organizations.

From Nov. 19 to 25, Gitler will be visiting family in Teaneck and is available to meet privately with anyone interested in finding out more about the project, whose $4.5 million annual budget comes entirely from individuals, federations, and foundations in Israel and abroad.

The Moriah School graduate, who went on to earn degrees from Yeshiva University and Fordham Law School, began by researching the work of Israeli social service agencies.

“What struck me was that there was not a single agency centralizing donations of food, outside of dry goods from large companies,” he said. “Thank God, there is no lack of food here in Israel. It just isn’t always getting where it needs to go. If farmers, caterers, hotels, restaurants, bakeries, or the army had extra food, I wanted to know how it could end up in the hands of the needy.”

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Joseph Gitler, founder/director of Leket Israel Photos courtesy Leket Israel

Calling his fledgling project Table to Table (Shulchan L’Shulchan), he began cold-calling event halls and caterers to inquire about leftovers. “Ninety-nine percent said ‘Come tonight’ when I asked if they wanted to donate the food. They didn’t even ask about tax deductions or legal liability. That attitude has continued for nearly eight years.”

Gitler bought containers and started packing up leftovers at the end of catered affairs within driving distance of his Ra’anana home. He’d take some to agencies that were open at night and store the rest in his refrigerator to bring the next morning. Soon he had to buy a couple of used refrigerators, and by February 2003 he was recruiting local volunteers.

The father of five keeps a hand in his business pursuits but spends most of his time managing and growing his organization. He changed its name to Leket Israel two years ago, after the Leket Israel Food Bank merged with Table to Table. “Our biggest project was always called ‘Leket’ anyway,” he explained. That project involves gleaning and distributing 14 million pounds of produce annually from Israeli farms. “Leket,” the biblical Hebrew word for gathering or gleaning, provided the organization with a meaningful and appropriate moniker, he said.

Today, Leket Israel owns nine refrigerated trucks, five pickup trucks, a few wagons, and a tractor. About 750 volunteers pick up food daily and nightly from establishments including corporate cafeterias. Another couple of hundred prepare the school sandwiches using bought rolls and fillings. Tourists often give a few hours to the farm project, picking produce along with paid staff. Recently, The Jerusalem Post featured an interview with former Teaneck Mayor Kevie Feit when he and his family participated in gleaning.

Gitler started the buying co-op about three years ago to increase the purchasing power of many smaller food charities. “We’ve come to the realization that we’ve been very successful in food rescue, which is the core of our work and the most efficient part of what we do, but many places are always asking us for more,” said Gitler. “So instead of expanding food rescue, we’ve found other ways to help.”

Though the Israeli economy has grown strong, Gitler emphasizes that poverty has worsened as a result of low wages and rising housing costs. “The real solution is better earnings. However, there will always be those who fall through the cracks and need services of organizations such as ours.”

Soon, Gitler plans to open a Leket Israel Center in Jerusalem as a distribution and education facility. “We’ll put in an industrial kitchen, using the food we get our hands on to train people in need to learn kitchen skills so they can find jobs,” he said. “If we have 100 tons of carrots, for example, we can show them how to make soups or cakes from the produce to distribute to the poor.” The finished products will thus benefit both those who make them and those who receive them.

See www.leket.org/English for further details.

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