Rehovot, Israel — When students at the Ulpana Orot Modi’in, a religious girls’ high school, learned that a classmate’s 18-year-old brother had fallen into a coma during the summer, they began to recite prayers and psalms for the young man’s recovery.
The 12th graders also decided to do good deeds on the injured man’s behalf, believing that he will be credited with the mitzvot and, hopefully, be healed.
On a warm early-November day, more than 50 of the school’s students traveled to an orchard in the town of Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv, and began picking clementines, a variety of mandarin orange, to feed Israel’s poor, whose ranks have swollen in recent years.
Dressed in comfortable skirts and sneakers, the students were careful not to damage the peels as they gently detached the clementines from their branches. Within a short time they had filled several crates with the juicy fruit, which Leket Israel – the organization that runs the gleaning project — delivered later that day to agencies that feed the needy.
Noa Walz, the 17-year-old former Brooklynite who came up with the idea to pick produce, said she was looking for an activity that would help needy Israelis, and that could accommodate so many student volunteers.
“It’s chesed [acts of loving kindness], but also a lot of fun,” Walz said as her classmates laughed and broke into song as they labored under the sun. “You leave here with a good feeling.”
Leket, Israel’s food bank and largest food-recovery organization, relies on more than 40,000 volunteers every year to pick the fruits and vegetables it donates to more than 300 partner nonprofit organizations (soup kitchens, day care centers, shelters) and 102 schools.
Founded by Joseph Gitler, an American-Israeli, in 2003, Leket Israel has grown dramatically as food in Israel has become more expensive and many people have become poorer. Today, a quarter of Israelis live below the poverty line, 800,000 of them children, according to the National Insurance Institute.
Although much of Leket’s activities are focused on gleaning – the biblical imperative to collect leftover crops – about a quarter of the produce picked for the gleaning program comes from a charitable farm whose sole purpose is to provide food for the hungry.
After reading about Leket’s food recovery program several years ago, Sanford Colb, a philanthropist who owns a large tract of land in Rehovot, “decided to use his philanthropic dollars in a unique way to grow fruits and vegetables for the needy,” Gitler told The Jewish Week.
In an unusual partnership, Kolb grows the produce and Leket volunteers do the majority of the picking, Gitler said. The organization also pays 22 Arab women to pick produce from farms where the produce would otherwise go to waste, often due to unfavorable market conditions.
With only paid 84 staffers, Leket (originally named Table to Table) manages to rescue an average of 179 tons of produce every week from over 1,000 fields throughout the country — a 99 percent increase over 2010.
The organization also rescues, on average, 22 tons of manufactured perishable food — dairy products, baked goods, frozen goods — every week from 25 suppliers, including several large manufacturers and wholesale distributors. That’s a 120 percent jump over the previous year.
Just as it has done since its founding in 2003, Leket continues to rescue thousands of meals from restaurants, caterers, food halls, events and cafeterias.
“There are hundreds of dedicated local volunteers who go out to an event at 9 or 10 p.m. or even later to rescue food that would otherwise go into the trash,” Deena Fiedler, Leket’s marketing professional, said while driving through the Rehovot fields.
Leket’s Sandwich for Kids program provides 33,000 volunteer-prepared sandwiches every week to needy school children in 30 cities. There are over 18,000 children on the waiting list, Gitler said.
Leket receives no funds whatsoever from the Israeli government. It relies on private donations, whether in the form of money or food, and of course volunteers.
Thanks to a $1.1 million grant from Goldman Sachs Gives, Leket recently began planting, growing and harvesting its own fields to supplement the food being rescued.
Gitler said the NGOs Leket partners with “want potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions. We’re not offered millions of tomatoes and cucumbers, so the idea is to fill the void, to bring in more Grade A stuff. We want to respond to the needs, taking into account the growing price of water and so on.”
Leket’s 40,000 to 50,000 volunteers come from both Israel and abroad: Israeli school groups, corporations, the public sector, youth groups as well as Birthright Israel trips, bar- and bat-mitzvah tours, synagogue groups and Jewish federation missions, to name a few.
“The volunteers are invaluable to us, and we have filled a big gap in mass volunteering. Where else can you go with two to three busloads of participants?” Gitler asked.
Smaller groups are welcome as well.
“We make it a point to volunteer in different places twice a year,” said a half-dozen middle-aged members of the Zahal Disabled Veterans organization, all dressed in slacks, who were picking clementines a few yards away from the students.
“There’s a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in Israel, and people honestly have trouble putting nutritious food on the table,” said Sari Nachtailer, one of the Zahal volunteers.
“This has been a very moving experience for me,” said Anat Bichler, a member of Nachtailer’s group. “Whoever came up with this idea of gleaning is doing a tremendous service.”