Joseph Gitler, a Manhattan native who worked here as a lawyer before making aliyah 10 years ago, is founder of the largest food rescue and food resource organization in Israel, Leket Israel, originally known as Table to Table.
Gitler, 35, said his group reaches 20,000 people daily in Israel and annually distributes nearly 1 million meals, 1 million sandwiches to schoolchildren, and about 14 million pounds of produce and dairy products to nearly 250 nonprofit organizations in Israel.
The Jewish Week caught up with him on a recent trip to New York to talk about issues of hunger, poverty and economic inequality in Israel.
Q: Israel was just admitted into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which reported that it has the highest poverty level in the Western world. It noted that one in four Israelis is living below the poverty level — a figure that is 2.5 times the average in the developed world. And the OECD criticized Israel for failing to bridge the gap between the rich and poor.
A: Over the last five years, the wage gap has increased. What bothers me is the contrast in this country between the haves and the have-nots. One of the reasons for the growing gap is that there have been cuts in child allowances. That drove a lot of families with a lot of children under the poverty line. Many of them are ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.
Another factor must be the large number of poor immigrants and fervently Orthodox Jews, about half of whom don’t work.
Israel has had massive immigration from poor countries. Many of then were uneducated, like the tens of thousands who arrived from Ethiopia. So when you look at Israeli poverty statistics, they have to be viewed under many different lights because the raw numbers are shocking.
That does not mean to say that things are OK if you separate the Ethiopians and the haredi who choose not to be part of the economy. But we should not be compared to most other Western countries that don’t have mass groups of people who immigrated and then chose not to work or who can’t work because they are not educated.
We do have to deal with this problem, but it is unfair to compare. In reality it might be true that our poverty level is 2.5 times the average in the developed world, but it is not as bad as it sounds. And my work will not change that reality. It will only change by government policy and by forcing people to work.
What are your efforts for those in the Ethiopian community who are illiterate?
We do a lot of good work, from the sandwiches to nutritional training. But that community needs a tremendous amount of help; we are only one piece of the puzzle.
Why is there such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots?
Israel has changed so quickly in the last 25 years — from a quasi-socialist country to a turbo-charged capitalist country — and not everyone has come along for the ride.
Which individuals are most affected?
The most severe are the elderly without families. It is estimated that Israel has 100,000 Holocaust survivors, and a substantial number of them struggle to get by. It’s a very embarrassing issue in Israel.
And there are children who may not be getting the right nutrients and who are falling through the cracks.
A big issue is access to help; you may be qualified for it but don’t know how to get it.
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