Volunteering at Leket Israel,
Marks Oberlander Family Trip
By Michael and Sima Oberlander
As we were planning our family trip to Israel this summer, we were looking for an activity that would combine many of the things that motivate us to spend time in Israel and are important to us - learning as a family (formally and informally), Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and tzedakah.
During the year, our family participated in an educational program sponsored by the Torah MiTzion Kollel in St. Louis that met every Shabbat morning. Together, as a family, with the shlichim (ambassadors) from TMK, we studied a different mishnah each week. Our family found a lot of meaning in the laws that apply in the land of Israel related to farming - including the laws of shmitah (leaving the land fallow once every seven years), peyot (leaving the corners of the fields for the poor) and leket (when harvesting, the farmer leaves the gleanings that drop for the poor).
Also, we recently celebrated the bat mitzvah of our daughter, Naomi. In preparing for her bat mitzvah, the three of us studied Megillat Rut - the Book of Ruth. In the story, after Ruth leaves her native land of Moav to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Eretz Yisrael, Naomi tells Ruth to go pick the gleanings from the field of one of her relatives, Boaz. Boaz is very kind to Ruth, they marry, and among their descendants is King David. So, if not for the mitzvah of leket, Ruth and Boaz may have never married and much of our nation's history would have been very different.
Leket Israel, a St. Louis Jewish Federation funded program, was founded on the simple idea that the hungry of Israel can and should eat from the produce that farmers in Israel would otherwise leave in the fields. It is not economical for farmers to pick all of the produce - at a certain point, it costs more in labor to pick the food than the farmer could earn by selling it. And, unlike Biblical times, the poor are not necessarily living near the fields where they can go out and pick the gleanings themselves.
So, volunteers were enlisted to help pick the food to be distributed to food banks and the poor. Farmers soon balked at the idea of families (like ours) -- who do not know anything about farming, youth groups, school groups, etc. -- from coming on their fields. And the logistics are difficult in that Leket Israel does not get advance notice of when a farmer may be farming and leaving gleanings for volunteers, and (now) employees, to pick.
A philanthropist bought 500 dunams (approximately 175 acres) south of Rechovot, and everything that is grown there is donated to the needy. The farm grows apples, onions, beets, among its produce. Leket Israel also runs other programs, including Table to Table, which picks up leftover food from weddings, bar and bat mitzvot, army bases, etc. and brings that food to organizations that provide for the hungry. On a "local" note, Leket Israel stocks food pantries and soup kitchens in St. Louis' sister city of Yokneam.
We were very glad that we were joined in our visit with Leket Israel by Harris and Melissa Perlman and their children. The Perlmans are friends from St. Louis who moved to Chicago a few years ago and are spending the summer in Rechovot as Harris is working at the Weitzman Institute.
By picking beets, with our hands in the heat, we were able to put into practice what we learned in the mishnah and the Book of Ruth. We were also able to work the eretz - the land. In fact, we all had the dirt of Israel under our fingernails for some time afterwards. And, we were able to do a very small part to help feed the hungry of Israel. The Leket Israel representatives were incredibly warm, wonderful with our family, took the time to answer all of our questions, and helped make this one of the most meaningful experiences for our family. They connected with all of our children on their levels. We would encourage anyone visiting Israel to take a few hours and volunteer with Leket Israel.
Michael Oberlander is the Incoming Vice President of Planning & Allocations of the Jewish Federation Board. His wife, Sima, is on the Board of the Central Agency for Jewish Education. Serving as the country's largest food bank and food rescue network, Leket Israel works to alleviate the problem of nutritional insecurity. Each year, with the help of 40,000 volunteers, Leket Israel rescues over 700,000 meals and 13 million lbs of produce and perishable goods, and supplies over 1 million (7,000/day) volunteer prepared sandwiches to underprivileged children. Food, that would have otherwise gone to waste, is redistributed to nearly 300 nonprofit partners caring for the needy.