The Human Spirit: Cream of the crop

A South African immigrant reinvents the biblical tradition of leaving crops on the field for the poor

0606-sofer.jpg (photo credit: Table to Table)
(photo credit: Table to Table)
Back in South Africa, Mark Eilim, 38, cleaned carpets and rented out cars. The car rental business frequently took him to repair shops and garages in the dingier sections of Johannesburg where others feared to enter. And so, when a Jewish food service sought a driver to deliver meals to the needy in those neighborhoods, he volunteered. One of his regular recipients was a woman who suffered from Asperger syndrome - a mild form of autism in which social interaction is difficult. She insisted he write down a phone number of a young woman she'd memorized after meeting her at a Pessah Seder eight months earlier. Eilim was touched. He was single, had been dating for a decade in the hope of getting married, but with no success. What could he lose? He phoned this stranger named Haydee Scop and was swept off his feet. He proposed on the first date. They were married two months later. Both Mark and Haydee wanted to live in Israel. The local emissary actually tried to discourage them. They had a baby on the way. The rental car business was hard to get into, and he wasn't sure they'd make a living on carpets; most Israelis have tile floors. They made aliya anyway. Their son Avishai was four months old. When Mark saw an ad for a driver in the local Ra'anana newspaper, he applied. "Six weeks in the country, and I was glad to get even a temporary job after what the emissary said," says Eilim. He'd never been a professional driver, but he had been in the car rental business. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that he was indeed well-qualified for the job - it required delivering food to the hungry, something he was experienced in, albeit as a volunteer. When the temporary job finished on a Thursday three weeks later, the head of the organization asked him to stay on: they were short-handed and something would surely come up for him to do. He didn't have to wait long. On Monday and Tuesday hail fell near Netanya, damaging crops. The fancy persimmons grown by a farmer in nearby Kfar Haim were no longer of export quality. The farmer would be compensated by his insurance. At the agreement of the farmer and the insurance company, Eilim and a few volunteers arrived to pick the imperfect persimmons that would otherwise be left to rot on the trees. That's how Table to Table's gleaning department was born. GLEANING IS an old Jewish tradition, derived from the biblical requirement that farmers not reap all the way to the edges of a field or pick up the forgotten sheaf. Those are left for the poor and the stranger. Today, four years later, 122 tons of fruit and vegetables are picked each month by 15 full-time employees and more than 5,000 volunteers. The resulting produce is then passed on to soup kitchens and food distribution organizations. Eilim is in charge. There are many reasons food is left in the field, explains Eilim. "For instance, the weather might have made your strawberries blossom all at once instead of in the staggered manner in which you've planted them, so you can't possibly pick them all. The price of eggplants might plummet, so that transportation from the Arava will cost three times what you'll make on the vegetables. We dispatch gleaners." The soft-spoken Eilim says he initially adopted "guerrilla tactics," following farmers on their tractors and snooping out crops about to be abandoned. "Once they understood that we'd give the food to the needy, I didn't have to work hard; this is an idea central to Jewish tradition. Word of mouth now brings the farmers to us. Ninety-nine percent of them wouldn't call themselves religious, although they follow the laws of shmita and give away food. Some may say the spirit of giving and volunteering is dying in Israel, but I see just the opposite. Everyone - from kids in nursery school to the elderly - wants to volunteer." There's satisfaction in rescuing rotting food, but it is far surpassed by picturing the faces of children whose parents could never afford strawberries or families that have to divide a single tomato. "Fruits and vegetables are the first to go when people are economizing," he says. The extent of poverty is worse than he'd imagined before he made aliya. "We have another department in Table to Table which takes leftover food from caterers. We never used to take day-old bread, but now we've had so many requests for bread that we do." BUT FOR Eilim, the most moving part of the food rescue is when kids from tough neighborhoods join the pickers. "Recently someone donated the money to bring a busload of terribly behaved teenagers to glean in a field of eggplants. As soon as they started picking, a hush fell over them. They worked very seriously. A 16-year-old told me that he realized that since coming to Israel as an immigrant, he'd always been on the receiving end of giving. The feeling he had of giving sustenance to someone else was new and wonderful." In the Book of Ruth, which Jews will be reading on Shavuot, impoverished Ruth joins the gleaners in her relative Boaz's field. Her own acts of kindness are answered with a resonating kindness. Acts of kindness and social justice are not legislated by governments but bred into our consciousness through the values of the Torah. Sometimes our consciousness needs raising. Last week, my Jerusalem synagogue, like many others, followed the Hassidic custom of designating a Shabbat before Shavuot - the holiday of the giving of the Torah - as "Shabbat Derech Eretz," the Sabbath of Right Behavior. As the sages said, "Derech eretz kadma l'Torah," right behavior precedes the Torah. As we prepare to take advantage of the feast of learned lectures in our renewed Jewish state, we cannot ignore the needy among us. For Eilim, the joy of his daily work overcomes any difficulties he may have experienced. "We've been here four years and the 'aliya blues' haven't set in yet," he said. "I think that's because of the wonderful people I spend my days with. They're simply the cream of the crop."