By: Phillip D.
Before I begin recounting my first Sar-El experience I think it would be appropriate to explain the origin of Sar-El.
Sar-El was founded in 1982 by General Davidi who was the force behind the programme and from 1982 to the end of his life, it was his life! The name is an acronym from the Hebrew which translates as volunteer service for Israel.
This was at the time of the 2nd Lebanon war when all the reserves where called up resulting in a shortage of people to work on kibbutzim and in the various other essential jobs, an appeal went out to the American Jewish organisations and very quickly 650 volunteers where on their way to provide cover for the soldiers who were fighting in Lebanon.
The objective of Sar-El is to attract voluntary help for the Israel Defence Forces enabling the soldiers to concentrate on their duties while the volunteers provide valuable assistance in performing the everyday work necessary for the smooth running of the bases. Since 1982, over 100,000 people have taken part in the scheme working on army bases throughout Israel performing a broad range of supportive work.
Participation is open to anyone over 18 in good health, physically fit and there is no upper age limit, this is possibly the only volunteer scheme in Israel that does not have an upper age limit.
Volunteers pay their own airfare and make a nominal contribution to the Sar-El organisation, there are only two paid employees based in Israel, everyone else who assists in the running of Sar-El is a volunteer. There are 1,2 and 3 week programmes running year round. You can find the dates on the website: Sar-El.org which also provides full details of the scheme.
The starting day is Sunday and volunteers make their own way to a pre-arranged rendezvous in Tel Aviv where they are introduced to their madrichot (group leaders) and the other participants before being transported to the base. This gives everyone an opportunity to get to know one another and familiarise themselves with each other’s background.
Upon arrival at the base, you will be met by an officer who will be the link between the base and madrichot, and allocates work and handles any problems that may arise. Then you are given a brief tour of the base, taken to your room and issued with your working uniform, these are your clothes throughout the duration of your time on the base.
The work is of a broad and varied nature, which may include any of the following: helping in the kitchen, clearing/ re-arranging storage units, painting, filling sandbags, loading and unloading trucks etc.
The working day follows a standard pattern and starts with the flag raising ceremony at 07.50 with the assembled company of the base together with the volunteers who all line up facing the flag pole, following the raising the commander speaks to individual soldiers and then everyone disperses and goes for breakfast in the mess hall. Breakfast consists of eggs, bread, fruit, cereal, yogurts, chocolate milk tea or coffee, of the Turkish variety but no milk!
The volunteers then meet with their madrichot and the officer who is responsible for their work and the daily work assignment is allocated.
Work continues until 12.00 noon when everyone goes for lunch, this is a meat meal and could include: soup, bread, chicken schnitzel, potatoes, rice, couscous, vegetable, salads and fruit. This is the main meal of the day and is very substantial. A vegetarian option is always available and kashrut is strictly observed. The working day finishes around 4.30 and there is free time until 6.00 pm, when it is time for dinner, a milk meal comprising soup, maybe eggs, French toast, pancakes, fruit, yogurts and as a treat: pastries.
Living accommodation is basic, no 5-star luxury, the volunteers have the same simple rooms as the soldiers, approximately 2.5 metres by 3 metres, lino floor, metal sprung framed beds with foam mattresses the windows are often painted black so no curtains and heat is providing by an oil filled radiator. Rooms can accommodate up to 6 although very often only 2 or 3 share.
The washroom facilities are in a separate block and are shared by both soldiers and volunteers. Sleep is not usually a problem as you are so tired after your days’ work.
The madrichot organise an activity around 7.30 pm which may be a Hebrew lesson, a discussion about the constant threat facing Israel, an explanation of the IDF ranks and the signification of the different insignia and the coloured berets worn by the soldiers. This is usually a very enjoyable and relaxed time and often incorporates some good humoured banter before everyone retires to bed at around 9.30pm!
That is a brief outline based on my experience and gives you a reasonable idea of the routine.
I first learned about Sar-El at the open community meeting back in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge when Jacquie Brill spoke about it, then heard more details from a relative in Manchester who has been on the scheme. That conversation planted a seed and it has taken me until February 2017 to take part but I can assure you it will not be my last trip!
My week was spent in the very north of Israel, approximately 2 km from the border with Lebanon. It was cold, around 10 degrees, and rained almost every day. I was in a group of 11, 3 from the UK, 6 from the USA, and 2 from Germany who as a matter of fact, were not Jewish and have completed 10 trips as Sar-El volunteers! The camaraderie and strong bonds formed during this week will stay with me forever, I am certain.
Everyone has their own story of their connection with Israel and why they are prepared to give of their time and money to do something so positive.
It is a truly enriching experience, in fact the soldiers asked us if we were paid and why were we there? They could not understand why we do it but are really appreciative of our efforts. Believe me whatever job you are asked to do you do willingly no matter how menial and you get so much fulfilment, in fact we were thanking them for giving us the opportunity to be there with them. The average age on the base was 19, they have very responsible jobs and it is quite staggering.
For example, we were given a talk by a girl soldier of 20 who was the operations manager for communications centre covering the whole sector of the border under the control of the base. As my German friend Dirk remarked, Israel is not just the front line in the middle east, it is the front line for western democracy against extremism of all kinds.
My enduring memory will be of when we met in Tel-Aviv on that Sunday morning. We were 11 individuals from all walks of life and various Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds yet by the end of our week we were a tight knit group of friends who joined together in an impromptu rendition of “Am Yisrael Hai and David Melech Yisrael,” all of our hearts beating as one in support and love of Israel.
I hope that by writing this article I have inspired others to consider volunteering. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed and in fact you will be humbled by the reaction you will receive.
For further information go to the website Sar-El.org .
There is also a British organiser in Manchester, Jennifer Goldstone, who can be contacted by e-mail at: email@example.com
Shalom, see you in Israel.