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Alleviating Hunger in Israel, Uniting a Community
Marla Cohen

    In October, Nat Wasserstein went to Israel on a mission with the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. It was his first visit there and he was truly moved by the experience.

But he also learned something there that truly unnerved him.

   While touring the Jaffa Institute, a private, non-profit agency that serves disadvantaged children in Israel, he heard a story of Uri, an eight-year-old boy who would change the way that Wasserstein thought about the country and his role in the Federation

   The Jaffa Institute, which runs programs in Jaffa, Bat Yam, Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, works primarily with at-risk kids in after school programs. Uri was just another kid who was being served by the social service organization. But workers at the agency found Uri stuffing his pockets with food and asked him what he was doing.

   Caught, he was humiliated and scared. "I'm going to jail," he cried. Though workers tried to assure him otherwise, they had a hard time convincing him. Finally, they got a whole story out of him: he lived at home with his mom and sisters. His mother was sick and his little sisters were hungry. He needed the food.

"I couldn't believe this was happening in Israel," Wasserstein said. "That a child would fear incarceration merely because he's trying to feed his family. It made me angry something like this was happening. Then I thought, well, something like this could be solved."

   As head of the Federation's Israel and Overseas Committee, Wasserstein decided this was something the Rockland Federation could take on. To that end, the organization is forming a partnership with Table to Table, a food redistribution program that collects high-quality food from farms, army bases, catering halls, corporate cafeterias and other sources and redistributes it to places that serve those who need it. Volunteers also glean fields of produce that just misses qualifying for supermarkets at the end of the season's harvest.  The Federation's role will be to open a northern office in the Haifa area. Currently Table to Table runs programs in three cities.

   But before finding Table to Table, Wasserstein made sure this was the right direction. He spent a month researching the issue of food scarcity in Israel. What he found astonished him.

   The last semi-annual report on poverty conducted by the National Insurance Industry in Israel found that 1.5 million Israelis live in poverty and 400,000 thousand families live in "nutritional insecurity" -- a polite way of saying they go to bed hungry. These people skip meals, eat smaller portions and may go entire days without eating. Their diets are high in carbohydrates and almost completely lacking in meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit.

   For American Jews used to thinking of Eretz Yisrael as the land flowing with milk and honey, hunger hasn't traditionally been a funding priority.  But almost a quarter of its citizens suffer from hunger some of the time. And another eight percent are living in extreme hunger conditions.

   "We send money to plant trees, to build schools and to build absorption centers [for new immigrants]," Wasserstein said. "We don't think about hunger."

Seeing a Need, Making a Difference

But Joseph Gittler does.

   Gittler made aliyah at the turn of the 21st century. In Israel, he saw possibility all around him in the high-tech sector, in the happening economy. Gittler knew he'd made the right choice in moving and went to work first as an attorney and then in his family's software business.

But that was before the economic downturn in Israel. That was before the second intifada. After those two things, Gittler began rethinking what he was doing.

   Those two events created poverty like he'd never seen before in his new homeland. And he wanted to change that.

"It was embarrassing so many people were hungry," said Gittler, director and founder of Table to Table in a phone interview from his office in Ra'anana, Israel. "It made me angry."

Gittler remembered that in the United States food rescue was a time-honored means of helping to feed the poor. He wanted to create something similar in Israeel. So Table to Table was born. Volunteers collect food from places that have excess. They find what they need from the unserved leftovers from a catered simcha, the produce on farms leftover after a harvest, the food leftover from a cafeteria or army base. Volunteers collect the food and using refrigerated trucks redistribute it to agencies serving those in need.

   The idea caught on quickly. Since 2003, Table to Table has grown into an organization that collects more than 10,000 meals, 20 tons of fruits and vegetables, and more than 20,000 fresh products weekly. It distributes this bounty to more than 50 non-profit agencies serving the hungry and needy, primarily in the central part of the country.

   In addition more than 600 people volunteer to do the work, whether it's picking up food late at night, gleaning the fields or distributing what's been collected on the following day.

American Jews may not be aware of the problem, Gittler said, but it's not entirely their fault.

   "For those who've been funding Israel for a long time are very surprised it's a problem," he said. "The Israeli government has been loath to have foreign funders involved. Seemingly they just don't want it publicized."

  The Rockland effort will be unique. And Gittler hopes it will inspire others.

"Rockland is the first Federation that has come on board like this," Gittler said. "If this effort succeeds, we hope to take it to other Federations and say, we think it can work. This is what Rockland did."

Making it Come Together

  Back in Rockland, Wasserstein realized that the Federation could help. Table to Table was seeking to open an office in Haifa so that it could expand operations into the north of Israel. The agency was looking for $180,000 to invest in infrastructure: the refrigerated van, office space, the absolute nuts and bolts of the operations.

  "We're not buying food," Wasserstein explained. "We are going to invest in infrastructure so that we can move food from where it is to where it can be used. So for every $100,000 we invest, we'll be able to move close to $1 million food a year. . . .So it's a unique opportunity to be part of something that can grow and for us to take ownership of it in Rockland. It's not a one shot thing." The effort to get the Haifa base up and running will take two to three years and the Jewish Federation of Rockland County will "own" the project through its fundraising efforts. Wasserstein brought the idea to the Federation's board and was given the green light to have the Israel and Overseas Committee take on the project.

  The goal for Federation, however, is bigger than just raising the money. It's getting as wide a swath of the Rockland Jewish community to participate in the effort.

"This is the kind of program that builds and brings together all segments of the community," according to Shimon Pepper, executive director of the Federation. "I have visited with about a dozen or so congregations and each has expressed their support of the program and is working on ways to showcase the program and raise funds."

   So far, those who have heard the pitch have been very enthusiastic. The JCCY is going to donate the proceeds of its annual 5K walk-run to the Table to Table effort. The eighth graders from Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School spent part of their Israel trip picking peppers for the program. Other synagogues are discussing ways to make it part of their social action agenda.

  "We have the opportunity of helping this organization open up a whole new area," said Ken Simckes, who brought the program to the board of Young Israel of Monsey in Wesley Hills. "One hundred percent of the money raised is going to the project. For people who have issues about the percentage of the funding going to it, no one can argue. And no one can argue with the cause."

Rabbi Ari Jacobson, his rabbi, is working on getting a group of Orthodox synagogues to help raise funds for the program.

In addition to the synagogues in general getting involved many of the congregational schools are on board, too.

   When Pepper and Wasserstein presented the program to the kids at Beth Am Temple's Hebrew School, the excitement was palpable. Kids brainstormed ideas, while the Federation representatives walked around an enormous map of Israel pointing out the areas the local fundraising would help

   "It's a great project," said Beth Am Principal, Judy Jaffe. "The kids were so excited, brainstorming ideas on how they could help."

Getting broad support for Table to Table is almost as important as raising the money itself. According to those working on the project, it's a way of promoting k'lal Yisrael within the Federation and throughout the community.

  "This is something that we can all agree on," Wasserstein said. "This is part of the benefit, to unite a community that hasn't been united in the past."