Many of us cringe when confronted with faces of hunger in ads, in television commercials, and on the street; few of us actually do something about those feelings of discomfort. Joseph Gitler ’92YUHS, ’96YC is one of those few.
A Manhattan native, Yeshiva graduate and lawyer who made aliyah in 2000, Joseph founded Leket Israel in 2003 (originally called Table to Table, or Shulchan L’Shulchan), which grew into one of the largest food rescue and food resource organizations in Israel.
Gitler grew up in Washington Heights and attended Yeshiva University High School for Boys. At 14, he moved to Teaneck, and when it came time for college, there was no other choice for him but YU. “I grew up in the Heights, was a student at MTA, and my father attended YU – it was obvious for me to continue my education there as well,” says Gitler. “My three younger brothers also went to YU, so you could say that we’re one of those classic YU families that spans generations.”
While a student at YU, Gitler met and married Leelah Koschitzky ’95S. They both nurtured a strong love for Israel, fostered by their attendance at Zionistic summer camps and day schools, and knew they wanted to make aliyah one day. In 2000, after Gitler completed his law degree at Fordham Law School, they packed up and moved to Ra’anana with their first child in tow – two weeks before the Second Intifada happened. “I always say we don’t get extra credit for moving during the Intifada, when it was a real show of courage to move to Israel,” says Gitler, “but we do get credit for staying.”
Gitler explains that the Intifada, coupled with September 11, caused tourism to decline. This decline, combined with other factors, such as reduced investment in high-tech projects in Israel – once a driving force of its economy – resulted in many families and individuals struggling to make ends meet. Television, radio and news reports began describing a new underclass of the unemployed and working poor in Israel. It was no longer the traditional ethnic groups and immigrants that had trouble paying for basic necessities like food – it was a problem across the board. After an official report was released on Israel’s poverty level in 2003, Gitler found that he couldn’t remain on the sidelines and decided to make a few calls to local caterers to see if the leftover food from events could be somehow donated to these people who were going hungry.
“The caterers all asked me where I’d been, and why it’s taken so long to get an initiative like this off the ground,” recalls Gitler. And so, as if being a new arrival to a foreign country isn’t enough of an adjustment, Gitler found himself switching from a career in the law to being at the helm of a burgeoning non-profit that picked up leftover food from events and arranged to drop them off by agencies that catered to the poor and hungry. Thanks to word of mouth, this small operation soon turned into a much larger non-profit organization that merged with Leket Israel Food Bank (leket is the biblical Hebrew word for gleaning the remains of the harvest) in 2009, and became officially known as Leket Israel. The organization works with 300 agencies, such as Yad Eliezer, Ezer Mizion, and Meir Panim, and serves 60,000 Israelis a day. There are 84 full-time employees and over 40,000 volunteers each year who help pick up food in the field; arrange delivery of leftover food from restaurants and caterers; make sandwiches; and carry out other tasks to ensure that Leket Israel runs smoothly each day.
“It was supposed to be a minor thing, and then back to normal life,” says Gitler of his initiative, “but momentum picked up quickly and people were so excited to help.”Leket Israel also runs the country’s first food buying cooperative, which unites over 300 non-profit organizations to purchase food in bulk at more economical prices than if each organization did its food purchasing alone.
This past year, Gitler received a Presidential Citation for Volunteerism from Israeli President Shimon Peres, which he called a great honor. “For an organization to receive that sort of recognition after only eight years in existence is unprecedented, and it’s a wonderful boon to all our volunteers, donors and partners to see that the State of Israel is distinguishing us in this way,” says Gitler.
As for his personal life, though most olim (immigrants to Israel) struggle with certain elements of culture shock, Gitler says he is resolute in thinking that Israel is the right place for a Jewish child to grow up. With five children of his own, ranging in age from 13 to one, Gitler shares: “There’s a certain freedom here that children have that they don’t have in the United States. This country is for kids – they’re everywhere, because it’s safe, and there’s no such thing here as a restaurant where it’s not appropriate to bring children.”
“I also love that it’s a Jewish state, and you can see a sign wishing you a chag sameach on the highway,” says Gitler, “or have the cashier at the supermarket wish you a Shabbat Shalom – even if she herself is not Jewish.”
Something less ideal about Israel, comments Gitler, is the driving. He says, “You can ask 100 olim what the most frustrating thing about Israel is and they would all say it’s the abhorrent way people drive here.”