Teaneck man honored for helping the hungry

Joseph Gitler, alum in Jewish Standard, July 29, 2011

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by Abigail Klein Leichman

Teaneck native Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket Israel, Israel’s national food bank and leading food-rescue network, accepted the country’s 2011 Presidential Citation for Volunteerism on July 6 on behalf of the organization at a recent ceremony at President Shimon Peres’ residence in Jerusalem.

Speaking with The Jewish Standard from Toronto, where he and his wife Leelah were visiting with their five children for a family wedding, Gitler said the citation was a welcome affirmation of the organization’s work.

“Thanks to Leket Israel’s 45,000 annual volunteers who partake in our Leket [gleaning] initiative, our day and night rescue projects, and our Sandwiches for Schoolchildren from at-risk homes program, we were fortunate to have earned such a prestigious award.”

Founded in 2002 as Table to Table, Leket (www.leket.org/English) is also one of the youngest Israeli charities to receive a Presidential Citation. But it is not the only one headed by a English-speaking immigrant, commonly known as an “Anglo.”

“Sitting on the stage with me were two other Anglo founders of organizations,” Gitler, 36, reported. Among 12 other awardees were Marc and Chantal Belzberg, founders of One Family Fund and former New York residents. “The Anglo community has certainly made an outward impact on the charitable sector in Israel.”

One of four sons of Susie and David Gitler, he went to The Moriah School in Englewood and 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.

Two years after Gitler made aliyah with his wife and young daughter in September 2000, Israel’s National Insurance Institute issued a report about the stark realities facing Israel’s unemployed and working poor in the midst of the crippling Arab intifada.

“This issue grabbed me because when we made aliyah, Israel was on an Oslo euphoria; everyone was giddy. After the intifada, it was painful that suddenly a country that had been that strong was struggling so much. So I decided to take action.”

He’d been involved in pro-Israel activities during high school and in bone marrow drives in college, but this was an undertaking on a whole different level. Gitler learned that no single agency was centralizing donations of food left over from farms, catering halls, hotels, restaurants, bakeries, and corporate cafeterias.

He started by packing up leftovers from 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.

While for the past few years Leket was salvaging about 115 tons of healthful food per week, in recent months the average amount has soared to 250 tons. Through its various food distribution programs, subsidies, and services to 290 other organizations feeding the poor in Israel, and through nutritional education, Leket affects the lives of about 55,000 Israelis every day.

Sandwiches for Schoolchildren has volunteers in 24 cities preparing 7,500 sandwiches each school day for kids arriving from home without food. “It’s great that it’s successful, but sad that kids are coming without proper meals,” Gitler comments. “It’s a project that there is always going to be a waiting list for. It’s hard for Americans to understand this program because in the States there is a federal hot lunch program. In Israel, that’s only available in the periphery areas for now.”

Leket Israel’s annual budget is now 22 million shekels, currently equivalent to $5.2 million, and all of it comes from individuals, federations, and foundations in Israel and abroad.

Gitler is always looking for ways to stretch each shekel without cutting services. “Right now we’re testing out doing some of our own growing. Even with paying farmers in this test, it’s still much cheaper than buying on the market and allows us to choose what we grow based on nutritional considerations and what we know people want.”

Leket Israel owns nine refrigerated trucks, five pickup trucks, a few station wagons, and a tractor. If the upsurge of the past few months continues, it may become necessary to beef up that fleet; for now, the organization is using third-party vehicles to help out. Gitler has also increased the organization’s distribution network in Jerusalem and Beersheva, two areas hard hit by low wages and high housing costs