Finding Food in The Land
Israel. The name conjures up countless images of our history, religion, culture and politics. But for my kashrut-observant family, visits to The Land also mean a food marathon. We race from falafel stands to food courts. Every visit to a tourist attraction ends with ice cream. Time with friends and relatives is scheduled around breakfast, lunch and dinner - the more restaurants in a day, the better. We spend our vacation gorging ourselves on meal after snack after meal and by the time it's all over, we have to loosen our belts and consciously return to better eating habits. We know that living like this is simply unsustainable.
But on our most recent Israel trip, food took on a whole new meaning. While planning this last trip, we explored a variety of new and meaningful activities to do with our young children. A friend recommended that we participate in a Leket (gleaning) project. She described visiting a farm 45 minutes outside of Jerusalem and spending a couple of hours picking citrus fruit with her similarly aged children. The yield of that crop went directly to a food bank. I was sold. I contacted the volunteer coordinators of Leket and scheduled field time early one morning.
Upon arrival, our guide met us and gave a short history of Leket (formerly known as Table to Table). We were shocked to learn that of Israel's 7.7 million citizens, approximately 1.9 million people live below the poverty line and 850,000 are children who go without a decent meal every day. This was especially ironic information for us gluttons! Project Leket volunteers take unused food from restaurants and caterers, which would otherwise end up in the trash, and deliver it to area food banks. Equally important, volunteers work with farmers and landowners to pick perfectly good produce that wouldn't otherwise enter the market due to "imperfections" in size and color. Project Leket helps salvage hundreds of thousands of tons of perfectly good, nutritious food and brings it to the needy. For countless families, it speaks to the problem of food insecurity and puts efforts into action.
Our volunteer group consisted of 4 men from an Israeli tech company that requires its employees to spend a certain number of days volunteering for endeavors like Leket (an example North Americans can learn from!), my husband, mother-in-law, our 2 small children, and me. We were led to the end of a large farm and instructed to collect potatoes. Our only guidelines: leave the damaged or soft ones - otherwise, leave no potato behind. (The potatoes that did not get picked were designated as "ma'aser" and would get fed to the cattle in the neighboring farm.)
Every piece that we picked would bring nourishment to someone else. We spent 2 hours in the heat, on our knees, collecting these potatoes, putting them into baskets and then hoisting them into a larger container. While picking, we watched as trucks picked up other crops and returned empty bins from past yields. I quickly developed a newfound respect for farmers. By the end, sweaty, dirty and parched, our group had amassed a respectable 2,000 kilos (4,400 lbs) of potatoes. Our guide explained that our two hours of toiling in the field would help feed roughly 700 families the next day. It wasn't a morning of leisurely picking grapefruits in the groves, but it was incredibly satisfying.
Leket, gleaning fields, is mandated in the Bible. Among other places, Leviticus 23:22 reads: And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God.
For my family, gleaning was an incredibly important hands-on experience. It reinforced the importance of bal tashcit, of not being wasteful. It was a lesson in sustainable agriculture. Of course, it enhanced my appreciation to enjoy countless meals while visiting Israel. Most importantly, it helped create a relationship between myself and the dust of the earth in a way I had never experienced before.
You don't have to wait to go to Israel to participate in a gleaning program. Check out the Let's Glean! toolkit for more information on gleaning, and where to find additional resources.
Always, but especially in Israel, we've taught our children the importance of giving - taking them to buy toys for children confined to bomb shelters in Sderot, or putting some money into the hand of a poor person. For me, this experience has taken on an additional level of giving - and teaching the importance of giving. I have meditated at the top of Masada, recited psalms at tombs and slipped notes into the Western Wall. But for me, working the land for Leket was my first real connectedness to The Land - and the closest I've felt to doing G-d's work.