"Pesach's coming - and we're gleaning more than ever," announces Joseph Gitler, founder of Table to Table, Israel's premier "food rescue" organization.
"We're looking for volunteers to work in fields all over the country. It's an ideal activity for a few hours - you help the poor, have a chance to work in the fields, and have a great time, too," he adds.
Table to Table has become a favorite Israeli institution for both visitors and locals who want to do something meaningful with a bit of excess time. For farm owners, who donate excess food left in their fields, it's a chance to do a big mitzvah. And with Pesach just ahead, gleaning goes intense.
"One farmer offered a tomato field right now," Gitler says, "and said he'd have another in about a month, which is perfect. During the holidays - and especially Pesach -– there's a huge demand for donated food."
How does a field of excess tomatoes end up feeding needy Israelis? "Gleaning" is a biblical concept spelled out in Parashat Mishpatim: Jews are adjured to leave unharvested food or grain in the field for "the alien, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings."
Through Table to Table, a three-year old Ra'anana-based nonprofit organization, volunteer pickers come to designated farms and cull excess fruit or vegetables, packing it for transport. Drivers pick it up and deliver it to food-service agencies that staff the nation's soup kitchens, needy school systems, the elderly or agencies that distribute holiday food boxes.
Table to Table added gleaning to its food-rescue services last year, and already it's made a huge difference. Volunteers harvest hundreds of tons of clementines, persimmons and tomatoes, in addition to the potatoes, carrots and other vegetables they regularly collect from warehouses.
Table to Table began as a food-rescue operation so the gleaning work is new, says Gitler. It all began when he - then a 28-year-old oleh from New York - attended a Bar Mitzvah. He was troubled by two opposing problems: perfectly good leftover food from the celebration was being thrown away, while at the same time, people in the streets were hungry.
"Why not pair the two?" he thought. "Why couldn't the leftovers -- untouched, unserved - be brought to soup kitchens to feed the hungry?"
As a committee of one, Gitler began doing it all by himself. With his wife's encouragement, he spent most evenings collecting excess food in his own car and delivering it to any nearby food-service charity.
But it didn't take long for help to pour in. "Now, more than 500 people volunteer in our evening food pickups from locations all across the country," explains Gitler. "We pick up from about 180 events a week, furnishing food for about 10,000 extra meals.
Apparently, the gleaning operation started with a persimmon farmer in Kfar Chaim.
"First, he called us and said he had a large quantity of fruit he hadn't been able to sell. Could we pick it up? No problem! A few days later, he called again: Tons of perfectly good fruit had fallen on the ground, he said. Could we find people to gather it up? Again, no problem.
"By Chanukah that year," says Gitler, "we'd organized several hundred people who picked persimmons at various times - they enjoyed it as much as the people who ate the fruit."
"It's not just fruit," says gleaner Helene Mittman, a Zur Yigal resident who came on aliyah 14 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y. "We pick vegetables, too. Every Tuesday morning, I go to a packing shed and spend an hour picking potatoes, selecting useable ones from a huge bin. These are potatoes that maybe were too small to sell or have a little black spot - but hey, what do you do when you buy a potato like that? You cut out the spot and use the potato! So they're just fine to use.
"We get broken carrots from another packing shed - again, what's the big deal? It's food, fresh from the field. We fill big bags with sweet potatoes, cabbages, all kinds of things. Then drivers pick them up, and they get delivered.
"Preventing waste of all kinds is our mandate," insists Daniel Swartz, TTT's assistant director, an oleh from Chicago. "Food rescue is one part, but we're concerned about maximizing human potential, too. When we compose our gleaning teams, we work to mix all segments of Israeli society, religious and secular, sabras and immigrants.
"We mix big companies - Intel comes regularly - with college students and elementary schools, we mix Ashkenazi and Sephardic families," continues Swartz. "We love it when new immigrants from absorption centers come.
"Everyone works side by side. Gleaning is now a national communal project. It maximizes human resources to meet society's needs, on many levels."
So far, some 20,000 volunteers from Israel and abroad - including many who use their vacation and tourism time to help out - have worked in the fields, "rescuing" almost 2.5 million pounds of fruit and vegetables, which then, in effect, really rescues others.
In fact, it has resulted in more than a million needed meals having been served.
To learn more, e-mail: info @tabletotable. org.il, or log on to: http://www.tabletotable . org.il/fruit.