Local boys make good

Local boys make good

Two men who grew up in Teaneck are among the six winners of the inaugural Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion (Builders of Zion) award.

They are Joseph Gitler, 39, founder and chairman of the national food bank Leket Israel (www.leket.org/English); and Dr. Jeffrey Hausdorff, 51, director of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Gait and Neurodynamics at Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.

The award recognizes outstanding English-speaking immigrants “who encapsulate the spirit of modern-day Zionism by contributing in a significant way towards the State of Israel.”

Joseph Gitler courtesy Leket Israel and Dr. Jeffrey Hausdorff courtesy Jeffrey Hausdorff

More than 200 recent and veteran Anglo immigrants to Israel from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada were nominated for the prize. Each recipient will receive $10,000 in a Jerusalem ceremony.

Mr. Gitler told the Jewish Standard that he plans to donate the money to his organization, which provides food to 140,000 Israelis every week. Last year, with the help of 55,000 volunteers from Israel and abroad, Leket distributed 30 million pounds of produce and other edibles that would have been discarded by farmers, manufacturers, and caterers. Leket also runs Sandwiches for Schoolchildren, providing 8,700 sandwiches each school day for at-risk children in about 35 cities.

“I was of course excited, elated, honored, and most of all surprised to win,” he said on the morning following the January 14 announcement. “There are so many wonderful nonprofits in Israel started by Anglos, and Leket works with many of them in different capacities. Nefesh B’Nefesh could very easily have chosen someone else.”

In 2011, Mr. Gitler received a Presidential Citation for Volunteerism presented by President Shimon Peres.

One of four sons of Susie and David Gitler of Teaneck – and himself the father of three girls and two boys, ranging from 15 to 3 years old – Joseph Gitler went to the Moriah School in Englewood and then earned degrees from Yeshiva University and Fordham Law School.

“Education from home and school made it almost second nature that charitable involvement is a given,” he said.

In September 2000, Mr. Gitler, his wife, Leelah, and their oldest child made aliyah. Two years later, Israel’s National Insurance Institute issued a report about the stark realities facing Israel’s unemployed and working poor. “It was painful that suddenly a country that had been that strong was struggling so much. So I decided to take action,” he said.

Mr. Gitler started by packing up leftovers from catered affairs near 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 bought a couple of used refrigerators, and by February 2003 he was recruiting local volunteers for the organization he originally called Table to Table. Soon, he left his first career to devote himself full-time to Leket.

Leket Israel’s annual budget has grown from $5.2 million in 2011 to $8.5 million today. Collection, distribution, and community nutrition education activities are coordinated with 180 other nonprofit agencies.

“The numbers of needy are so large – not growing, but steady – that despite our growth year after year we’re still unable to reach everyone,” Mr. Gitler said. “If we doubled in size, we still wouldn’t serve everyone in need. But we have the tools in place to help them, so long as the funding community continues to help us.”

Dr. Hausdorff, who moved to Teaneck with his family when he was in fourth grade, graduated from Moriah and the Frisch School before earning degrees in biomechanics and biomedical engineering at Cooper Union, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His mother, Hinda Auerbacher, lives in Teaneck with her husband, Manny. His sister, Tammy Spielman, lives in Englewood.

The Bonei Zion prize recognizes his contribution to a better understanding of why mobility and walking change with aging and disease, and how to reduce those changes for greater physical safety.

“A major emphasis of our work is showing that walking requires cognitive attention,” he said. “That is now well accepted, but when we started it was thought that balance and gait are automatic processes. We’ve done a lot of work to prove otherwise.

“Now that we know the head is involved, we can use that information to reduce the risk of falls and improve balance and gait through intervention with therapy for aspects of cognitive function.”

He and his wife, Sharon, made aliyah in 2000, fulfilling a longtime dream. He speaks of being influenced by “an undercurrent of the importance of Israel” in his Moriah years, and his convictions grew strong enough to compel him leave a faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School to move there. Dr. Hausdorff is now a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s School of Medicine as well as the director of the Neurodynamics and Gait Research Laboratory.

“My wife and I were finished with our schooling, and the kids were starting to get older, so it was time,” Dr. Hausdorff said. The family, including four children, ranging in age from 12 to 24, lives in Chashmona’im.

The other Bonei Zion Award winners are educator Malke Bina, founder of Matan women’s learning center in Jerusalem; solar energy pioneer Yosef Abramowitz; Lt. Nira Lee, spokeswoman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories; “Dry Bones” cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, and Ben-Gurion University Professor Emeritus Shimon Glick, a world leader in medical humanism and medical ethics.

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