Inside story: Normal Israelis averted COVID hunger crisis; pride for nation

(Courtesy Leket Israel)

Who says Israelis don’t donate? During the current crisis, the good people of this nation have opened their hearts and wallets.

We all know the stereotype. Israelis don’t give, and our charities rely on help from abroad. Well, I’ve been on the front lines in the fight to keep underprivileged Israelis fed during the fallout from this pandemic, and I’ve been amazed.  

We’re good at giving up our time, at volunteering, at using our energy to help those in need. But it’s said that when it comes to parting with cash, we’re reticent. And yet, at the very moment that the country’s economy shut down and so many citizens started worrying about finances, I saw donations flooding into my organization, Leket Israel from people who wanted to ensure that the needy are fed. 

There were thousands of Israelis who chipped in with donations large and small. The former encouraged the latter, for example, the Inbar and Marius Nacht Foundation which kicked things off with a million shekel matching grant. There were celebrities like musician Si Heyman who turned to us from a sense of social responsibility, and there were countless corporations who had never supported us previously. 

The response said something very profound about our country. That at the moment when you would expect people to turn inwards, they looked beyond themselves. As the country shut down, the food that Leket normally uses to feed the needy — leftovers from hotels and workplaces — was no longer available. We faced a choice: buy food, or have people go hungry.

Cash donations from Israelis saved the day.

(Courtesy Leket Israel)

As money enabled us to provide hot meals to many who are on the breadline, some Israeli farmers stepped in to ensure that the needy are getting fresh produce too.

 They gave us access to more and more fields, to pick produce that isn’t commercially profitable. During April we collected 3,401,732 pounds. That’s up 30% from our normal monthly harvest.

 You know those moments in life when you want to throw your head in your hands, feeling hopeless? That’s how Yinon Sharavani, a 26-year-old farmer from the Ella Valey, felt when he prepared to harvest his cauliflower crop. 

“For three months I had tended it with love, and excitedly, I told distributors I was ready to harvest,” he says. “The distributor replied: “Stop picking, markets are closed and there is no demand for goods.” 

(Courtesy Leket Israel)

As he was still reeling from this blow, he thought of others. Sharavani gave us the entire 61,000 pounds of his beautiful cauliflower crop, and within days they were being cooked in the homes of Israel’s needy. 

When coronavirus started to turn our lives upside down, I didn’t know how we would manage. Then, to make the challenge harder, demand skyrocketed. People everywhere were registering themselves unemployed. Parents who were just about succeeding in putting food on the table were suddenly unable to do so.

I’m happy to report that we did manage. Last month we distributed 291,630 hot meals to the homes of the elderly, the needy, families of at-risk youth and other vulnerable populations. Some of them were families with a single parent who was working a low-paid job, and then found himself or herself without employment.

 The story of how we got to this point is an inspiring one. It’s a story of people doing whatever they could.

There were big companies like Macdonald’s and Coca Cola who realized their trucks were sitting idle as we struggled to deliver to our growing list of recipients, so they loaned us trucks. There was a couple that, in the midst of the disappointment of a wedding with hardly any guests, donated a proportion of their gifts to us. There were yoga and dance teachers who ran Zoom classes for participants who donated the price of a meal or two to us. There were corporations, like those at Applied Materials and Adama, who bought fruit and vegetables from farmers and gave them to us for distribution. And there were all the regular Israelis who helped.

Israel is a nation that doesn’t just give, but also thinks outside of the box to give. A breakdown company, realizing few people were driving and needing attention during lockdown, offered to get its call center staff calling some of the most vulnerable and lonely people we work with, to give them a listening ear and support during the crisis. 

The effects of this crisis are far from over. In fact, for many Israelis who have lost work and don’t have prospects for a return, or elderly people who are still isolating, it may just be the start. But we’ve shown ourselves as a nation where there are many who will step up to protect each other, and for this, I’m immensely proud.

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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