Last year, Leket, the food rescue charity founded by New York lawyer Joseph Gitler, redistributed 20,000 tons of excess food to the poor, from wedding halls, restaurants and farms all over the country making it one of Israel’s most important welfare institutions.

Gitler grew up in Washington Heights, NJ in a middle class Jewish family who moved to Teaneck when he was 15. Gitler became a lawyer and a comfortable life awaited him. But after getting married and working in Manhattan for three years, he decided it was time to pull the rug on his life in America and move to Israel.

“I wanted to live in Israel ever since I was around 16,” he explains, tracing his decision back to years of learning about the country at Jewish day school and summer camps. “Israel was a central part of how I saw Judaism and I wanted to be a part of it.” His wife Leelah, originally from Toronto, felt the same way and they realized that it would be best to make the move when they were young.

With President Rivlin

“Leaving the material comforts of Teaneck behind was difficult,” Joseph says, “but telling my parents was harder.” The oldest of four children, his new baby daughter was the first grandchild in the family.

At age 25, he and his wife moved to Raanana, a leafy town, 20 kilometers north of Tel Aviv where Joseph worked for a successful software company.

Everything changes

Three years later, with two children and enjoying the hi-tech boom, Gitler read a news item that changed his life. Israel’s National Insurance Agency announced that despite an upturn in the economy, tens of thousands of Israelis were living below the poverty line. Joseph and his family were living a comfortable life but the harsh reality of the report stuck in his Joseph’s mind.

“We would go to weddings and celebrations of friends and see how much food was being thrown away,” he recalls. “It was something people always spoke about at events and restaurants. ‘They are wasting so much food!’ people would say. The waste really bothered me and I started thinking about connecting the dots.”

Gitler didn’t just settle on buying an extra recycling garbage can; he quit his well-paying job to schlep excess food from wedding halls and restaurants to the homeless shelters of Raanana.

“I had the luxury of having a few months savings, my wife and I worked out we could give it a go for three months and see what would happen.”

His first midnight raid

Joseph’s first hit was a local wedding hall called Eden on the Water. Armed with some plastic tupperware, he headed to the event around midnight as they were packing up.

He tiptoed around caterers reassuring them that he wouldn’t get under their feet, but to his surprise he found the caterer couldn’t be happier to help. “They were just delighted not to be throwing so much away. In fact, everyone we approached was happy to help, both those giving the food, and those receiving it even if it meant opening up in the early hours or giving us keys to their premises. Everyone just said yes.”

Soon enough Gitler was delivering to homeless centers, shelters for battered women and homes for disabled children. The budget the charities were saving on food costs enabled them to allocate more funds to their other core activities.

Echoes of a biblical mitzvah

As the quantities outgrew the capacity of his garage, Joseph found premises, received dozens of calls from volunteers answering his call asking for help and the organization Leket was born.

 

The name belongs to a mitzvah in the Torah originally intended for farmers stipulating that when ears of corn fell to the ground during reaping, they were not to be picked up, but rather left for the poor. It was one of a set of Torah laws relating to farmers, the gatekeepers of the economy, to look after the hungry.

“We work with many farms,” Joseph says, “but we’ve extended the mitzvah to wedding halls, restaurants and refrigerated trucks.”

One of the schools that receives hot meals daily from Leket recently told them, “Most of the students are not able to receive an adequate lunch from home. Bringing them together to eat a filling and nutritious meals changes the whole atmosphere at the school, it brings a calm and a feeling of equality.”

Gitler awarded for his charity work

With the support of private donors and some government support, Leket now works in every major city in Israel with tens of thousands of volunteers and 15 refrigerated trucks its operations are increasing at pace. Much of its work is on farms, with Leket teams picking and collecting leftover fruits and vegetables that would have gone to waste. They recently picked up 500 tons of excess potatoes a farmer was struggling to sell.

At every major junction Joseph says he has felt many miracles at hand. “We had a voice message from a Mr. Cohen who said he had been supporting us to the tune of $20,000 for the last few years and wanted to increase his support. We looked through our records and saw there was no record of such a supporter. When we called him and politely let him know he had confused us with another charity he asked about our work, and a month later we received a check for $500,000.”

“I think most people look at problems that have been around for a long time, and say, ‘if no-one’s done anything about it by now, it probably can’t be solved.’ That didn’t stop me from trying. And there is still so much more to do.”