Joseph Gitler is the founder of an organization called “Table to Table” in central Israel, inspired and directly modeled on “food rescue” operations such as “City Harvest” and “Second Harvest” in the United States and Canada. During a summer visit to his home state of New Jersey, The Record ran an interview with him.

He links the hungry, caterers’ leftovers

August 10, 2003

Joseph Gitler was never exposed to much poverty growing up in Teaneck and a “cloistered” section of Manhattan’s Washington Heights. But three years ago, when he moved to Israel, Gitler saw firsthand the sapping effects of a recession. In January, he left his sales job and formed Table to Table, a social service mission much like City Harvest in New York. In six months, he has gathered 200 volunteers who pick up leftovers each night from catering halls and bring them to homeless organizations, soup kitchens, and senior centers around Tel Aviv. They deliver about 10,000 meals a month. He spoke about his charitable work recently while visiting relatives in Teaneck.

Did you have any experiences in social services before Table to Table?

Very little. I was a lawyer here and I worked for a software company in Israel.

So, Joe, what made you start this?

Unfortunately the economic situation in Israel has been pretty bad. In November and December, some new statistics came out about children living in poverty and families living in poverty and I just decided that maybe we could do something to help the situation. I remembered in the back of my head: City Harvest. I thought about starting up a similar type of operation and we started from there. I started calling up caterers and other organizations to see if they needed people to pick up the food.

How did you recruit volunteers?

I started doing this on my own around one or two in the morning. I enlisted a couple of friends and from there we had a bit of word of mouth but we made great use of e-mail lists. A lot of local communities there have these large online discussion groups. I put out a few messages every week that we are looking for volunteers to go out at night and collect food from weddings and bar mitzvahs and things like that. I just started getting responses and today we have 225 volunteers.

Who are the people you’re helping?

A lot of soup kitchens have a lot of elderly and a lot of recent immigrants, especially from Russia and Ethiopia. The meals-on-wheels program is primarily for elderly and families, especially since families don’t generally like to go to soup kitchens. It really runs the gamut. We serve a lot of organizations in Jaffa in southern Tel Aviv and there is a very mixed population. Some of the organizations we serve there have Jewish and Arab clients. We’re nondenominational and non-political. We’re just trying to help.

How is it run?

Our volunteers work at night. They get assignments. They get told here are the places to go, here’s the contact people, call them at 10:30. If they tell you to come, pick up the food and here’s where to bring it. We store the food in their refrigerators and they decide what to do with it. We’re a logistics operation.
Are the caterers getting to know you pretty well?
Yeah, they’re appreciative of what we’re doing because it’s hard for them to throw away food.

Do you serve a lot of wedding cake?

We do get desserts but, no, we haven’t gotten wedding cake yet. It’s high-quality food that these organizations don’t normally get. People spend a bloody fortune on this food. Caterers never want a shortage of food. There’s always a lot left over.

Do you translate this to your own home?

Sure. In our community, in our synagogue, we already had a program where anything left over from the Sabbath, people would pack up and donate to a local operation that feeds families of people in hospitals. We have that kind of awareness.

Who are the volunteers?

They’re mostly working people. We have a lot of professionals who are looking to volunteer but because of their busy schedules don’t have an opportunity to volunteer during the day. We’re helping a lot of people not waste their time by watching television at night.

Do you do any fund raising when you’re in the United States?

A little, but not a whole lot. One of the things that we can do is raise funds from Jews all over the world. It’s an advantage we have.

Where do you want to see this go?

Our goal is to go national. We would like to have people collecting food from events at night all over the country