Helping the hungry and harvesting self-confidence
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Helping the hungry and harvesting self-confidence

Gerrard Berman students team with Leket Israel for food ‘rescue’

Students from the Gerrard Berman Day School converge over a bin of radishes harvested as volunteers with Leket Israel.
Students from the Gerrard Berman Day School converge over a bin of radishes harvested as volunteers with Leket Israel.

People learn best by doing — and what eighth -graders from the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland learned from picking radishes in Israel is likely to remain with them for a long time.

As volunteers with Leket Israel: The National Food Bank on their recent trip to Israel, the students helped rescue food for people who live below the poverty line. “It’s wonderful when young people come and get their hands dirty volunteering with Leket Israel,” said Joseph Gitler, Leket’s founder and chairman. “Helping pick vegetables in the field is a fantastic way for people to connect with the cause and help provide food to Israel’s poor. People see they can make a true difference, even with limited time.”

Leket, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 and headquartered in Ra’anana, rescues fresh perishable food from farms, hotels, military bases, and catering halls. According to the food bank, the students picked 400 kilograms of radishes, which will feed 190 needy families.

Robert Smolen, longtime head of school at Gerrard Berman, called the student trip — an annual event for eighth-graders — “two weeks touring Israel doing amazing things.” This year, students traveled from April 10 to 24. In addition to helping out at Leket Israel, on a farm in the north, the students visited an experimental farm “closer to the Negev and the kids got to see ‘carrots in the raw,’ yellow, purple, orange, and tomatoes of all kinds,” Mr. Smolen said.

What they experienced at Leket, he continued, “was harvesting for people in need. They were out in the field for several hours. The kids took to it. They enjoyed getting their hands into the soil. They harvested large numbers of radishes with a collective purpose.”

Mr. Smolen said that much of what Israel shows the world are its modern 21st-century developments. Still, he said, “there are people who are in need and who are not able to take advantage of that.” The land the students worked was donated to the organization to be farmed, he said. And thanks to Israel’s climate, “they’re able to grow all kinds of vegetables and fruits.

Freshly picked radishes will be donated to poor Israelis as part of the Leket Israel project.

“The kids were zealous about it,” he said. “They had an appreciation and understanding of the issue. We talk about malnutrition in health class when we discuss the components of a healthy diet. It gave them understanding — that there is a need to take care of each other. It’s like tithing in a field. Although this is not leftovers, and it’s not a shmitta year, you need to make sure the community is taken care of. We continue to maintain this from biblical times.”

The trip was made together with the Solomon Schechter School of Queens. Altogether, Mr. Smolen said, it included 31 eighth-graders, two madrichim (counselors) and six other adults. It was arranged in cooperation with Ramah Israel.

The students stay in kibbutzim and guest houses throughout the trip, getting more of an opportunity to see and participate in contemporary Israeli society, Mr. Smolen said. After the trip, “We review and break down the trip component by component,” with categories ranging from economics to politics to history.

“We give them a lot in two weeks,” he said. “It may be a bit overwhelming to go from Masada to Herzliya to the beach. It takes time to digest. We try to have downtime and reflect each day so that students can absorb it at a higher level.

“They came back exhausted, and shared with the rest of school what we did. Each student spoke about a different part of the trip. There was a lot to share. We see ourselves as shlichim, or emissaries.”

The Israel trip, he said, “becomes a maturational lever as students engage with Israel through the eyes of other kids. It’s different from a family trip. Here, they get to experience, compare, and contrast with their 13-year-old peers’ views. It’s uplifting for them. They don’t take in every detail but they have a different perspective than they had before. Parents say they see a palpable change.”

Student Yirshalem Pinkus, who lives in Chester, N.Y., wrote after the trip that “I learned that there are many families in Israel who don’t have the funds for food to feed their families. It felt good to know that we could contribute to the effort to supply nutritious vegetables to families that need a healthy diet. It felt meaningful to be making a positive contribution during our visit to Israel.”

Another student, Kaylee Maines of Wayne wrote, “I got to have fun with my friends when we harvested radishes for Leket. I had never picked so many radishes before and found it to not to be a chore but something I could do for people who are not as fortunate as I am. I gained a sense of pride in myself, my school, and in Israel to help it become a little stronger. It inspired me to help other people with something so small as a root vegetable.

“I guess a small vegetable can have a powerful impact.

A third student, Danielle Atiya, who lives in Fair Lawn, wrote, “I hope we can get more time in the future to gather food and continue to help families in need. I was proud of our group for harvesting about 800 pounds of radishes after an hour.

“Students can make positive contributions to Leket and here at home.”

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