Last year for Joyce’s birthday we went to Israel (our first time) and did a tour organized by the Jewish Federation. We both had a fantastic time and really made a connection with the homeland. This year Joyce asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday and I told her I wanted to go back to Israel and that I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to do another tour – I wanted to do something that would have a volunteering aspect to it. I called my friend Barbara Miller at the Jewish Federation in Cincinnati and she put me in touch with Avi Kagan in Israel. Somewhere along the line, after emailing with Avi and talking with our friend Allan Goldstein, I started to think that the Sar-el.org program was what I wanted to do. I discussed this with my wonderful wife Joyce and she said ‘sure, that sounds like a real adventure’. Volunteers for Israel (vfi-usa.org) is the US arm that handles applications for the Sar-el program. VFI does a thorough job to make sure that applicants are suited for the program and have an accurate idea of what they are getting themselves in to.
Sar-el wants volunteers to understand that they are ‘volunteering on an Israeli Army base’ as opposed to ‘volunteering for the army’. Volunteers pay their transportation cost to get to Israel (if they live outside of Israel) and then room, board and clothing are supplied by the Army while volunteers are on the base. Volunteers do manual labor which in turn frees up soldiers and other resources for other work. The session that we signed up for was one week long although many people sign up for for sessions that are several weeks long. The work week in Israel is Sunday to Thursday and we started off by meeting the program managers at 8am on Sunday morning near Tel Aviv
Our group of about 25 volunteers was assigned to 2 madrichot (soldiers assigned to oversee volunteers). These young women were fantastic and were a HUGE part of the experience of our adventure. Amit and Jessica were happy, engaging, interested and interesting. They got us on our bus where we started our trip southward into the desert. We eventually arrived at our base. On arrival, one of our first tasks was to be issued uniforms (shirt, pants & belt) in army green. Back at the guys’ barracks I swapped my pants which were too large with a bunk-mate who had some that were too small. Our barracks had a bathroom attached although I understand some bases have barracks that are separate from the bathrooms. Next we gathered in the meeting room and were given an orientation by our madrichot. Our first meal on the base was lunch. What I can tell you about the food in the army is that you get 3 kosher meals a day. That’s about all there is to say about it. However I could go on to tell you that most of what you get are vegetables. Breakfast and dinner are dairy meals and lunch is a meat meal. There are a lot of dishes that consist of vegetables and that goes for breakfast too. I’m not a coffee drinker so I don’t really care but it does not appear that the Israeli army drinks coffee. This was a bit of an issue for Joyce who finally found another volunteer that had brought some of their own coffee.
Our first work day started with breakfast at 7am. This was followed by the flag raising ceremony and singing of Hatikva along with the soldiers. From this point we were split up into different work details and sent to our respective work spots. There were a variety of jobs and each day assignments were given out so that we had a chance to pick different jobs on different days. One day I worked in the kitchen. The soldiers that we worked with/for were good at keeping us busy and the time went fast. Some of the soldiers spoke some English but many did not. We still were able to manage some communications using signs and a few words that I had apparently learned way back when in Hebrew school and a few words of English that they knew. It was a lot of fun communicating with the soldiers and sharing. Also, everyone of the volunteers in our group were great to be with. Our volunteers came from across the US, Canada and parts of Europe. Sharing time and experiences with the volunteers was a great opportunity and both Joyce and I made friends that I expect we will have future connections with. Another day I worked in the ‘shop’. Hannan ran his small shop and he strikes me as one of those guys that can make anything from anything. Out on a base in the desert you are far from the nearest Home Depot. Recycling takes on a very large meaning. I spent a day swinging a sledge hammer to take apart wooden beams to salvage the boards for reuse, and using a claw hammer to pull out all the nails that had held the beams together. While I was doing this some of our other guys were taking my boards and already redeploying them to be sides of new storage bins.
Each evening in the meeting room Amit and Jessica would have an activity for the volunteers. These activities helped us to get to know each other, taught us a few Hebrew words and gave us a better understanding of the place of Israel in the world.
In case you are thinking I have been a bit vague on exactly where our base was, and exactly what kind of jobs there were to do there – this was intentional. We were instructed at the beginning of our time that security is paramount in Israel. We were directed to only take photos that did not expose anything sensitive about the base we were on or equipment contained thereon.
If you think the Sar-el program would be good for you – I urge you to apply. I had a great time on this trip and both Joyce and I would like to return and do it again.