Recently I attended a memorial event marking 10 years since the passing of a dear friend who left us far too early. Her family and friends gathered to recall this amazing, wonderful, loving, wise and talented woman, who brought joy and good will into every room and every heart that she entered.
After the graveside reminiscences, a few songs, poems and prayers, the family chose to celebrate her life with a simple act of charity. The entire complement of mourners drove from the cemetery to the logistics center of “Leket Israel” in Raanana, nestled between an industrial zone and a citrus grove, where we all sorted vegetables for a couple of hours in her memory. Instead of the traditional nosh at the home of the family, we put on work gloves and stood around giant containers of beets and put them into smaller crates destined for homeless shelters and food banks.
For those of us remembering our friend Beth, it was a chance to chat, get reacquainted, tell stories and crack jokes while performing a relatively easy chore and feeling good about ourselves. For the people who created and sustain Leket Israel, this is a life mission.
Joseph Gitler, a young American businessman, made aliya in 2001 and recognized this very simple reality: In Israel today, there is hunger and poverty, and there is wealth and excess. There is food that goes to waste, and there are people who need it. Whether it’s farmers who can’t sell an odd-shaped cucumber or an undersized orange, or a wedding banquet in which huge piles of leftover food are turned into school lunches for poor kids or dinners for senior citizens, Leket Israel is always moving food from where it is not needed to where it is.
This endeavor is massive: A fleet of trucks, thousands of volunteers, and enormous logistic centers with refrigerators, sorting machines and coordinators combine in a daily campaign of military precision to provide food for nearly 200,000 Israelis.The scene on the morning of our little memorial was a noisy community of smaller communities. Inside the enormous hangar-style packing-house were rows and rows of crates of produce of various shapes, sizes and colors being sorted and boxed by groups of volunteers, also of various shapes, sizes and colors. From my brief wandering interview I came across a group of students from a High School in Haifa, a delegation from the Defense Ministry, a tour group from Chicago celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, a group of special-needs kids, and a family from nearby Raanana that puts in 2 hours sorting vegetables as a weekly multi-generational project. We were over 100 people in the hangar, all laughing, sorting, chatting, and all (I imagine) somewhat in awe of this vast project in which we were brief partners.
During the long drive home to Ketura, I did not feel pride. I felt humility. The creators of Leket Israel had come up with this idea, this brilliant program, this piece of tikkun olam. I had been given a gift. Without any of the sweat, the ingenuity, the planning, the fund-raising, and the bureaucracy, I was able to be a partner (if only for a brief couple of hours) in this amazing endeavor. The day was a celebration of two gifts: The wonderful life that we had gathered to honor and the spirit of helping that so aptly fits her memory.
The inspiration for Leket Israel comes from the Torah. We Jews are not the only people to emphasize giving to the less fortunate, but it’s worth recalling occasionally, that our ancestors were among the first to do so. The book of Deuteronomy established the principle of table-to-table food justice over 3,000 years ago:
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deut. 24:19)