Blog: Sar-Elnik Reflects on Life on and off Base

This is an excerpt from a blog describing the experiences of SAR-EL volunteer Johnny Cahn during his nine trips to Israel, both as a volunteer and a visitor.  

The events described took place during the period from 2010 to 2018.  Events are not necessarily in order.  The hope is that those reading this Blog will get a feeling of being in Israel and experiencing some of the emotions felt by the author.

Every IDF base has a Shekem, an acronym for a bunch of Hebrew words sherut kantinot lemeginei ha’am, (catering services for the defenders of the people–Wikipedia.)  The Shekem is the snack shop that opens up during non-duty hours and sells sodas and junk food.   Some are a little more lavish than others, some have a couple of picnic tables, and some sell the Israeli equivalent of smoothies.  Since most IDF soldiers have 28-inch waists, it appears that the sugar doesn’t affect them very much.  The most popular snack sold at the Shekem is a snack food called Bamba.  In Israel, the fourth food group after salad, falafel and humus is Bamba.  It resembles Cheese Doodles, but it is peanut flavored and is not coated with orange-colored cheese flavor.  It now comes in a variety of other flavors and they sell out every day.  Diet Coke is branded Coca Cola Light and they sell it in liter bottles.  I like Bamba a lot, and I have actually found it at our local kosher market at home.  I do not have a 28-inch waist.  The Shekem is an important institution, especially on combat bases.  It provides a social contact area as well as comfort food to take the edge off the chronic tension.  Since Shekems are run by soldiers who also have other duties, they don’t always open on time.  When they don’t, there is considerable grumbling in the ranks.  SAR-EL is really good about making sure that volunteers have time and access to the Shekems.  The soldiers love to see us there for two reasons, first, it gives them a chance to ask us who we are, and second, we usually treat them to Bamba.

Who we are is a constant topic of conversation between volunteers and soldiers. All the soldiers want to know why we come to Israel, who pays for our transportation, where do we go on the weekends, can they come to visit us in America after their IDF stint, and why do we do this hard work?  They approach us in the mess hall, the Shekem, at work in the warehouse; usually the one soldier in the group with the best command of the English language.  Volunteer Mark, who has written a great book about SAR-EL wrote that the soldiers call us Angels from G’d because we do all the things they don’t want to do and save them time that they can then spend with their families.

We visit the city of Tzfat (Safed), a small city with a long history of piety, a city which, during the British mandate, was neatly divided in half between Jews and Arabs by a straight, long concrete stairway guarded by a British watch tower at the top of the hill.  I have been told that the battle for Tzfat in 1948 was marked by the first use of artillery by the Haganah; a small cannon called the Davidka, which took out that British guard bunker and its machine gun.  Tzfat is home to many very religious Jews; its narrow streets, shops and stalls reflect that demographic.  Religious items are for sale everywhere; there is a Tallit factory with the most beautiful of Talithoth.  Its main street is lined with Judaica and works of Jewish art.  But the most memorable experience of our visit to Tzfat was the Joseph Caro Synagogue, built in the 16th century–although since rebuilt several times.  The synagogue and house of learning was built by Rabbi Joseph Caro, the revered Kabalist who wrote the Shulchan Aruch (the set table), the masterful work which compiled the many arcane religious rules into simpler practices that could be understood and followed by those who were not scholarly.  I am also told that it took him over thirty years to compile.  We held a minyan service there, including a Torah reading.  Although it is no longer an active synagogue it sure felt like on to me.  It has a very Sephardic theme, with hanging oil lamps and reader’s table located in the middle of the congregation facing the Ark.  But leave it to me to focus on the one feature of the Synagogue which connected me to our roots; the Genizah.  A Genizah is a storage place for worn out Hebrew texts and scrolls before they are prepared for burial.  We bury them because they contain the name of G’d, and so we dispose of them respectfully.  This Genizah in this building was a floor to ceiling bookcase at the back of the sanctuary with the aged, worn volumes visible through protective glass.  My mind wandered back to all of the Jews who had used these holy texts to the point of wearing them out.  I felt connected to them.

 

 

It’s another in-between SAR EL weekend in Tel Aviv.  On Friday afternoon Pam ask me if I want to go to Shabbat morning services.  Normally I would graciously pass on the invitation, citing fatigue from the previous week, but she says that the young guest cantor, a native of Tzfat, has a wonderful voice, and I wouldn’t be sorry.  The synagogue is the International Synagogue on Frishman Street, only a few blocks north of Bograshov Street, the cross street where our hotel is.  I promise I will come.  I arrive early and witness a synagogue completely full of congregants celebrating a Bar Mitzvah.  There is a Mechitzah (curtain separating men and women), but there is plenty of communication between both sides.  Candy is being thrown constantly, tots are all over the place including on the Bima, and wooden prayer benches are augmented by stacking plastic lawn chairs.  In this synagogue everyone understands all of the Hebrew in the prayer books so each proceeds through the liturgy at their own reading speed.  They all come together again for the prayers that are offered in common.  Rising above this balagan (no adequate English translation—maybe Kerfuffle) is the voice of the Chazzan whose vocal range appears to be limitless.  Every note he sings is at full strength—without strain.  He is a young man; Pam says that she and Zabo recently attended his wedding.   He also wears the Cantors’ Keppel, and his beard is dark, and he doesn’t stop smiling.  The Bar Mitzvah boy reads his assigned Torah portion in Hebrew.  I smile at the irony—Israeli boys should have to read their portion in Chinese to match the effort made by English speaking Bar Mitzvah boys having to learn Hebrew.

 

After the service, the Kiddish (social gathering after prayers) is held in the yard.  The young Rabbi, Rabbi Ariel, says the blessings over the bread and the wine and makes the weekly announcements about births, passings, social activities and administrative issues.  He speaks accented English; I think he’s from Long Island.  Much of the conversation around me is in English—after all this is the International Synagogue.  I learn that many of the congregants are SAR-Elniks who have made Aliyah.  I walk back to the Hotel with Pam and Zabo who live on the way.  I’m happy I went.  In my mind I compare this synagogue to our synagogue at home.  We don’t have a Mechitzah, men and women sit together in our Conservative congregation.  Our services are more sedate and controlled; quieter and more orderly; theirs’ more free flowing and disorganized.  Ours seem to reflect a devout adherence to our ritual, theirs an underlying joy.  I wish I could bottle that joy, but it is ephemeral.

 

I return to the hotel and go up to the roof garden.  It’s a well-kept secret.  The view from the top of the hotel is wonderful.  Directly to the West are the beach and the Mediterranean (the Yam HaTichon-the Middle Sea).  In all other directions, lie the vast expanses of modern Tel Aviv.  Downtown with its skyscrapers to the East; the view to the South the older sections of Tel Aviv all the way to Jaffa.  Residential neighborhoods stretch north to the Yarkon River.  There are comfortable chairs on the roof along with a gazebo and pitchers of cold water.  Sar-Elniks have brought snacks and wine from the sundry shop downstairs and from the Super Yehuda market a block away on Ben Yehuda Street.  Many of us know each other from years of crossing paths on different IDF bases.  We talk about our current IDF bases, we talk about families, and we talk about how lucky we are to have the opportunity to do this work.  The Sar-El community is an extended family; we are lucky indeed.  We meet other Sar-El volunteers whom we have not yet met before and we are instant friends.  We share information about good restaurants and interesting experiences.  Since many of us are “older”, we share a lot of common medical experiences as well.  Lots of conversations revolve around making sure medicine regimens are adhered to while we are away from home; amazement over how many volunteers are taking the same pills.  After a while the group breaks up.  One group has rented a car and is going to Bene Barak to visit family.   I smile; the last time I came across the name Bene Barak was last Passover when we read about it in the Hagaddah at the Passover Seder.

 

We are in the western Negev at the Black Arrow monument.  Sar-El has taken us to another educational site so we can understand more about the history of this nation.  The Black Arrow monument commemorates the actions of the Tzanhanim who perished in Gaza during the fighting there in the 1950s.  The monument lies within sight of the northern Gaza strip across a barren expanse of flat land.  There is a panoramic photographic display near the monument which shows the observer what he is looking at, Beit Hanun, Beit Lahiya, Jebaliya and Gaza City with arrows pointing to each.  I admit that I neglected much of the lecture about the monument in favor of just staring at Gaza.  White buildings on the horizon, far away but visible.

 

We celebrated volunteer Ben’s Bar Mitzvah on base.  Most of the time a Bar Mitzvah is celebrated around the thirteenth birthday, but sometimes life isn’t neat or linear, so sometimes the Bar Mitzvah is celebrated when the time becomes appropriate.  Adult Bar Mitzvahs in SAR-EL are not uncommon. Celebrating this rite while in Israel is very special.  We all gather in the small Synagogue across from the mess hall; Ben had studied the blessings to be recited before and after the reading of the weekly Torah portion.  At least a dozen soldiers pile in to the small prayer room with us to participate in the Mitzvah.  I was privileged to be called up to the Torah first, and when I was done, I stayed at the Bima (reading table) to support Ben for his Torah call.  This was a very big deal, and many of us were emotional. Volunteer Joel was called to the Torah after Ben.  Hard to explain how special it all was.  The service was conducted in Hebrew, so most didn’t understand everything that was being said, but a palpable sense of elevation prevailed.

 

We are on a bus driving through the Negev.  Our guide is trying to explain the status of the Bedouins in Israel.  Bedouins are an ancient Arab nomadic people; some of their ways are traditional, some controversial and some are more modern.  Some still live in tents made from goatskin.  Their status is complicated—what in the Middle East isn’t?   There are a little more than 200,000 Bedouin in Israel.  Israel has built and offered them seven permanent settlements, including the city of Rahat, to allow them to integrate into a more modern lifestyle.  About half of all Bedouins have resisted and live in their own unsanctioned villages—meaning constructed without building permits or plans.  I am told that these villages generally have little or no infrastructure such as electricity or sewage treatment. As with many groups within Israel, some members of the group are more nationalistic (with regard to Israel) than others.  Some actually serve in the IDF and are known to be excellent trackers.  We pass a large Bedouin tent near the highway in the desert with a TV satellite dish.  It’s complicated.

 

Throughout my narrative on Israel and SAR-EL it is clear that something drives me to go back again and again.  I have addressed several of the serious historical and emotional reasons for my journeys, but there are also some additional reasons for my volunteering.  Honestly, there is nothing like putting on a set of fatigues and doing hard manual work to remind yourself of the basic values that you fought for when you were younger and that you can now work for again in your golden years.  I put on a set of fatigues and I am young again; I belong to a band of brothers (and now also sisters) again.  When I was a young real soldier, I had youthful courage and perceived immortality.  Now I have other assets—time and money. When I put on a pair of combat boots I still douse my feet with foot powder—old habits die hard.  I know the tricks to making a uniform look good like using blousing garters and epaulet boards (if you don’t know what those are, Google them).  I know how to get up early for my shower so I have hot water.  I know how to lay out my pants under the mattress at night to keep them (somewhat) pressed.  New tricks I have learned?  Listening to soft music through my ear buds at night to neutralize the sounds of my competing snoring comrades.  In SAR-EL we are instructed not to discuss religion or politics in the barracks.  The smart thing to do is to smile and agree with everybody in your group in all their opinions.  Well, nobody’s perfect.

 

I shared earlier that several of my early tours were at the supply base that is responsible for refurbishing and packing medical supplies.  It is important work and I love doing it.  One of the surprising observations concerning the endless stream of cardboard boxes that we prepare is that some of them never do get to the IDF out in the field.  I noticed this one day back home when I was watching coverage of a Tsunami in the Far East.  The reporter was at an airfield and relief supplies were being offloaded from a C-130 cargo plane in the background.  I recognized the unique IDF marking on the boxes; I wish the world were more aware of some of the compassionate and charitable work that Israel does around the world.  By the way, that work includes providing medical care to Syrian civilians at Israel’s northern border who are victims of the current civil war in that besieged country.

 

I started a practice of writing a “thank you” letter to SAR-EL at the conclusion of each volunteer stint.  I actually had waited a bit to write the first letter since it took me a while to sort out my thoughts.  The letters give me an opportunity share my feelings with my fellow volunteers since Pam has graciously published each of the letters on the SAR-EL website.  Here is my first letter:

 

Dear SAR-EL!  Now that I have had a few months to digest my SA-EL experience of last February, I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you.  As with most other first time volunteers, I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv with instructions to meet in front of the “Swarovski booth”.  Forty-five years ago when I reported for duty with the US Army, it was certainly not at the Swarovski booth!  My first encounter with SAR-EL was with coordinator Pamela who bore no resemblance to my long-ago drill sergeant.  Pamela was clearly in charge, but needed no uniform or bluster to display command presence.  It was the first indication that I had that things here would be different.  SAR-El and the IDF were profoundly different from the military that I knew.  In SAR-EL we followed orders because we wanted to and because orders were communicated in a collegial, outcome-oriented and egalitarian manner; we were all pulling in the same direction with no personal agendas!  Soldiers, civilian supervisors and volunteers all knew the stakes—there were no slackers.

 

I felt at home in Israel even though it was only the second time I had been there.  When I went to sleep the first night (on my half inch thick worn out mattress), I was emotionally in my own bed.  My barracks mates, whom I had just met, were my family—Jews from around the world with whom I shared common ancestry and common beliefs.  I immediately liked them and trusted them—and put up with their snoring as they did with mine.  In the morning at flag raising, it was difficult to get out the words of HaTikva while watching the blue and white Magen David hoisted into the Israeli sky.  It’s hard to sing while you’re all choked up.  I’ll do better next time—maybe.

 

As you know, the living conditions at [the base] are not wonderful and the food was a shade less than gourmet.  It didn’t matter!  I wasn’t there for the ambiance or the cuisine.  I slept well because I was happily exhausted, and I ate well because I was hungry.  Both my fatigue and hunger were well earned.  I loved every minute.

 

I came home from Israel with a SAR-EL tee shirt, a hat and a pin.  They are among my most valued possessions.  The graduation certificate along with my ID card and a few snap shots of me wearing fatigues have already been framed, and hang proudly on the wall next to my diplomas and the other self congratulatory memento’s of my life; in many ways, they mean more.  By the way, I also came home with a set of IDF fatigues which I purchased in Tel Aviv.  My prior military experience instilled in me a pride of uniform which required a well-fitting clean and pressed appearance.  The work uniforms which we were issued didn’t meet my self-imposed needs, so I gladly made the investment and will wear my uniform proudly when I am back on base the next time.

Now the real reason for this letter.  The SAR-EL experience is life changing.  I don’t think anyone can do SAR-EL only once.  Eretz Yisrael is not just a country, and not even just the Jewish nation.  It is the emotional, intellectual and existential center of every living Jew.  You can’t understand it until you have been there—it can’t be explained.  Writing a check to UJA or paying to plant a tree in Israel will no longer suffice once you have made a contribution of Avodah (work).  For many of us who are looking to make a meaningful contribution to our fellow man after retirement, you will never feel better about yourself than taking orders from a nineteen-year-old IDF corporal who could easily be your grand daughter.  I urge you to endure the fourteen-hour flight to Ben Gurion, the aches and discomfort of the work and the frustration of communicating to young Israeli soldiers that they are not alone, and that you gladly pay your own way to work side by side with them for the elevating experience of laboring in the field of goodness and righteousness.

 

Thank you SAR-EL for making all of this possible, and thank you IDF for defending the land.

 

B’Shalom

Johnny

*   *   *

 

 

Every evening on base, the volunteers meet with their Madrichot (our young military guides/counselors). The meeting is usually from 7:30 to 8:30.  We discuss the day’s activities and there is an educational program prepared by the Madrichot.  Sometimes we learn about military or national history, sometimes the lesson is about useful Hebrew words and phrases.  There usually is a lesson about the meanings of the different colored berets.  Some of us have heard these lessons many times, but each Madricha has a slightly different way of presenting the information.  Sometimes some of the volunteers have been in SAR-EL longer than the Madrichot have been in the IDF, so we can provide them with information about our own experiences. Sometimes the base commander comes in to speak with us to thank us for our service or to explain what the function of the base is.  On most bases we meet in the Mo’adon (club house).  Sometimes we have it to ourselves, sometimes we share it with soldiers who are playing pool or watching TV.  Some Mo’adons are spacious and well equipped, others are small rooms, and still others have some kitchen amenities.  Many Mo’adons have small plaques on the wall attesting to the contributions made by “Friends of the IDF” such as the pool table or the TV or the room itself.  Periodically we get guest speakers from the IDF; soldiers, mostly career officers, who have interesting and timely topics to discuss, soldiers with first hand experience which can put news that we read about or see on TV into context.   One officer who addressed us held an advanced degree in ethics and spent over an hour explaining the ethical decisions-making process that the IDF uses.  He explained about the knock-on-the-roof warning that the IDF uses to warn civilians that their building is being targeted.  He explained how in-flight IDF missiles could be quickly rerouted or destroyed in the air if non-combatants are suddenly discovered at the impact area.  Sometimes our speakers turned out to be members of our own volunteer groups.  We’ve heard from a retired maritime engineer who used to be young ship’s officer involved with the Aliyah Bet, and ran clandestine transports of Jewish Holocaust refugees into the early British Mandate of Palestine.  We’ve heard from another volunteer who wrote a book chronicling his family’s exploits during World War II as members of the resistance in Eastern Europe.  Sometimes our Madrichot shared their own personal histories; stories about their own families, their own journeys to Israel from nations all over the world.  Madrichot from other countries are not uncommon since Madrichot have to be fluent in the languages of their volunteers.  We’ve had Madrichot from the US, from Russia and from France, a few even Israeli-born.  Each one different, each one special.

My second letter to SAR-EL was kind of a follow on to my first, I wrote it shortly after I returned from my second stint.

 

February of 2014 began my second volunteer experience with SAR-El.  I volunteered for the medical supply activity near Tel Aviv again because the work there is truly life saving.  I wrote last year that no one could volunteer for SAR-EL just once, and it bears repeating.  SAR EL is an instant, permanent re-connection to your roots, and a deep source of nourishment for the Jewish soul.  You come home from SAR-EL emotionally elevated.

 

In my letter after my SA- EL stint last year, I failed to write that SAR EL fulfilled yet another important life goal for me; SAR-EL provided a long-delayed moral victory for my family and me.  I am the child of holocaust survivors, specifically from Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Westerbork (North Holland).  The Nazis exterminated most of my family; I never knew my grandparents or most of my aunts and uncles.  Only my mother and father, and one aunt and uncle survived.  But now the descendant of my holocaust-surviving diaspora family has worn the work fatigues of the Israeli Defense Forces . . . I will be smiling on the inside forever!  I hope my parents are looking down on me and smiling as well.  They wore a Judenstern because they were forced to (look closely below my mother’s and my grandmother’s flowers); I wore the SAR-EL Star of David because I was privileged to!

 

But as much satisfaction as volunteers get from the SAR-EL experience, I hope that Israelis and the IDF derive great satisfaction as well from knowing that they do not stand alone.  The older we get, the more precious become the values that Israel and other democracies represent, and the more we are willing to sacrifice for them. SAR-EL provides the opportunity for us to continue to defend liberty and fundamental human rights by providing on-the-ground logistical support those who actually stand on the wall and watch over freedom.

 

Once again, thank you IDF and thank you SAR-EL; thank you Pam, and thank you my fellow volunteers.  Thank you for your clarity of vision and for having the courage of your conviction to take a meaningful and material stand.

*   *   *

 

It’s early in the morning.  We are at the base near Nablus.  The sun hasn’t come up yet, I’m awake and I know I won’t be able to sleep any more.  My bunkmates are still fast asleep so I get dressed quietly and take a walk outside.  The lights on the sidewalk are not on so the sun, which is now just above the horizon, is the only source of some light.  Just at the horizon I can see the outline of a guard tower.  It’s a sight I am familiar with.  Our guard towers outside of Pleiku in Vietnam fifty years ago looked pretty much the same.  As a matter of fact, I looked at my Vietnam pictures (yes, they have all been transferred to my IPhone) and I was struck how some things never change.  Below, the guard tower at the base outside of Nablus is on the left; on the right is a guard tower outside of Pleiku (Artillery Hill).  All fence lines look the same.

 

On the way back to the barracks, I stopped and watched a group of young officers and NCO’s in running shorts and sneakers getting in an early morning run before breakfast.  Except for the fact that a good number of them were sporting a week’s worth of facial hair, that could have been my platoon long ago—except I don’t think we looked as tough.

 

After my third volunteer stint With SAR-EL, which came right before Passover, I reminisced back to Passover in 1969 in Nha Trang Vietnam.  I wrote another letter to SAR-EL to convey that connection.

 

Pesach (Passover) 1969, Nha Trang, Vietnam.  I received a radio call from Goldstein, an old college friend from New York, who was stationed at II CORPS Headquarters about one hundred kilometers from my duty station in the Central Highlands near Pleiku.  “Hey Cahn, Two Corps has authorized a Seder at HQ in Nha Trang; field commanders are authorized to release Jewish personnel for 48 hours.  Be there . . . See ya’; Goldstein Out.”  I wasn’t going to miss two days away from the cannon fire.  I caught a helicopter hop to Nha Trang—it was on a “Slick” (a UH-1 Huey gun ship) and it was freezing at “cruising” altitude—the door gunner had removed the doors as was customary.  I was secured into place with one single, solitary, lonely metal C-clamp attached to a worn green canvass strap, and I sat on my helmet for obvious reasons. I was frozen, scared, and deaf from the whining engine noise.  I cursed that rotten Goldstein.

 

Hundreds of young infantrymen, artillerymen, clerks and cooks gathered in a makeshift canvass-roofed shelter at long wooden tables on the beach in the coastal city of Nha Trang in 1969 to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt.  The Rabbi, an older Army chaplain, started the Seder, but started to cry every time he looked out over his “congregation”.  Young American combat soldiers don’t cry, so we stared awkwardly until one young soldier near the front started clapping his hands rhythmically and started singing Dai Dai Yaynu, Dai Dai Yaynu.  It wasn’t the right sequence of the Seder, but it worked.  The Rabbi joined in and regained his composure.  The next task was finding the youngest 19-year-old to recite the Mah Nishtanah—the traditional four questions to be answered during the Seder.  In stead, we settled on the oldest serviceman present, a forty-one year old Air Force Sergeant.

 

Next came the meal.   If memory serves me, the meals came from the Jewish Welfare Board.  Small paperboard boxes that contained canned Kosher for Pesach meals, three pieces of matzah, a hagaddah, plastic silverware, Kedem grape juice and a P-38 (personal field can opener).  It was a feast!  Every few minutes someone would start clapping his hands and we would sing Dai Dai Yaynu again.  It was a true balagan.

 

[The base], February 2014.  The SAR-Elniks were told that we were going to another base where they prepared food for the IDF to help out with packing Seder meals for IDF soldiers in the field on Pesach.  We arrived at the base and were promptly assigned to the assembly line where the meals were put together.  My job was to place a cellophane bag containing plastic silverware in each box that passed my workstation.  I noted that each box contained canned Kosher for Pesach meals, three pieces of matzah, a hagaddah, plastic silverware, grape juice and a P-38 (personal field can opener)

 

So here is my prayer for SAR-El based on the two experiences described above.  My prayer on this Pesach is that there will come a time, well within our lifetimes, when we will no longer need to pack Seder meals for Jewish soldiers in the field; that we can all celebrate the exodus from Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt) in our own Sukkat Shalom (shelter of peace) with our young men and women—our children, and we can eat our mothers’ Yom Tov (holiday) cooking and listen to stories of Seders gone by and invoke the memories of our dear family members who shared our Seders in the past.  I hope it’s not too much to ask for.  Habt ah ziessen Paysach (Have a sweet Passover—Yiddish language version).

 

Passover has always been a special holiday for me, different from other holidays because of the Seder meal—the annual opportunity for extended family to come together and share this special meal and celebrate the historical events that made us a free people connected to a very special plot of earth.  Everyone has special memories of Seders gone by; I chose to share one such set of memories with my SAR-EL family a few years ago.

 

Dear SAR-EL family; on this Erev Pesach (the eve of Passover) I am thinking back to the late 1950’s.   I was sitting at the children’s table in our 5th floor apartment in Washington Heights.  We had four long folding tables end-to-end in an L-shape extending out into the hallway, and wooden folding chairs.  Two of the tables we had borrowed from Mrs. Lifschutz in apartment 5B.  All of my “aunts” and “uncles” (actually my parents’ fellow Auschwitz and Westerbork survivors) had all brought pots and boxes with food; they came by bus and subway.  I remember the men were all wearing fedora hats, and my “uncle” Naphtali was smoking the entire evening; uncle Alfred’s new hearing aid kept on whistling and he removed the battery from the large device in his shirt pocket.  The women were making a balagan in the kitchen and the men were arguing about any topic anyone brought up.  Every man around the table was perfectly capable of conducting the entire Seder in Hebrew and discussing every nuance in German or Yiddish.  English, . . . not so much.  They all sounded like Henry Kissinger.  I really miss it all.  They had nothing, but they had everything.  They exemplified Yiddishkeit (deep Jewish values based in Torah) and they enjoyed the profound satisfaction that comes with having a clear set of Jewish (i.e., universal) morals and values.  Their interminable arguments reflected their crystal clear understanding of right and wrong forged in the unimaginable conditions of the camps.  We now have all the wealth we can handle, but I for one, miss the simpler satisfactions of the arguing uncles and the din from the kitchen of the Seders of the 1950’s.  Now they–the “aunts” and “uncles”–are all gone, and its up to us to give our children and grandchildren the same indelible memories that were gifted to us by them.  I hope I am up to the task.  I also hope that when the time comes that our children and grandchildren talk about memories of me that they will say “I remember that he always led the Seder every year, and he also went to Israel every year as a volunteer with Sar-El to do more than just talk about the importance of Jewish survival, and the survival of a timeless set of universal values.”  Let’s hope.

 

Chag Pesach Sameach (Happy festival of Passover)

 

I met Ben G. several years ago through a small charitable organization that he runs in Israel.  Ben made Aliyah from the Tennessee, and he and his beautiful young family live in “the Goosh”.   Ben is a veteran of the Givati brigade—the purple berets.  He is also very active in his community’s defense organization and he is the founder of a security and training company.  Ben still looks like a soldier– lean and mean, not an ounce of fat—a coiled spring.  Ben maintains a close relationship with his friends in the IDF and collects funds to purchase items that soldiers ask him for to make them better able to carry out their responsibilities.  I have seen the email requests on his cell phone.  Yes, the IDF does a great job in equipping its soldiers, but soldiers can always use better or newer or more effective gear.  What I like about this particular organization is that when we (the volunteers) purchase the items that the soldiers ask for, we actually get to hand those items to them personally.  We have a “ceremony” every year where Ben invites the soldiers to meet the contributing volunteers, and we get a chance to chat with them and get to know them.  On several occasions I have contributed ceramic body armor (latest generation protective vests) to soldiers from the Kfir brigade (the Camo colored berets) and have watched them well up with tears.  Truth be told, they are also as grateful for socks, gloves and underwear, rechargeable flashlights and woolen caps.  Remember how little they earn.  These events are yet another high point of our volunteer experience.  I think of other organizations like Friends of the IDF and the great work they do, but it’s not as personal as the one-on-one experience of handing the gifts directly to the soldier.  I have a special affection for the medics and the work they do.  We have purchased special vests for them with detachable compartments specifically for carrying medical supplies.  On one occasion, we met with the soldiers out in the field near the Gush Etzion junction.  The soldiers were actually on patrol duty.  The commander of the unit was with his men, but surprisingly he was on crutches.  We thought it had been as a result of some service-related injury, but it turned out that it was an ankle injury from playing basketball.  So, no excuse for not being on duty!

Some of the events I described above were included in my fourth letter to SAR-EL

 

Dear SAR-EL.  Volunteering for SAR-EL is becoming a routine part of my life; and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  This last trip was special, or more accurately, even more special than the others.  The base I was assigned to this time provided logistical support to the Tzanhanim, the IDF’s paratroopers.  We actually worked shoulder to shoulder in the warehouses with these incredible young men and women, and the chemistry was wonderful.  We prepared the kit bags that the soldiers drew every time they went out on patrol.

 

 “Johnny, Johnny; don’t lift that crate by yourself,“ said Danny, a young paratrooper sergeant to whom I was assigned.  He was 20 years old, had served in Gaza and barely shaved.  I would have adopted him if he didn’t already have a large and loving family.

 

“Why not?” I said, trying to hide the intense muscle pain I felt while smiling through it.

 

“Because you are an overseas volunteer, and you should not be doing unimportant work like this; this work should be for the regular soldiers.”

 

I reply, “Are you sure its not because you think I could be your Grandfather, and I am too old for this?

 

“No no; you are strong, I know that.  Come with me to the Misrad (office) and you can arm wrestle with my friend Lior—he beats everyone at arm wrestling.  But you can beat him, I know this for sure!”

 

Ten minutes later, Lior lets me win three out of three bouts.  I want to adopt him too!

 

Danny wants to exchange shoulder flashes with me.  I give him my SAR El shoulder patch; he gives me his IDF Airborne shoulder patch.  Then he takes a marker pen and writes on the back of his patch the words of the 23rd psalm in Hebrew: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . “.  It is the motto of his combat unit.  Did I mention he is only 20 years old?

 

On the weekend, SAR-EL coordinator, Pam, takes those of us who have contributed funds for purchasing lightweight body armor for soldiers, to meet with the soldiers in the field and to actually place the armored vests on them.  We each got to choose a recipient; I asked for the youngest soldier present.  That was an emotion I will never be able to describe.  The young soldier I chose gave me his Kfir Division T-shirt in return.  I didn’t want to show emotion in front of him, so I gave him a kiss on top of his head and patted him on the back.  Hard to talk when you’re all choked up.

 

It got even better!  We had a Bar Mitzvah for Ben, one of our SAR-EL volunteers, at the Synagogue on the base.  I received the first Torah Aliyah since I am a Cohen (meaning my ancestors were doing Mitzvoth in Israel long before I came along).  When I was called to the bimah, I immediately noticed that there were no siddurim (prayer books) for me to use—I had to recite the b’rachot from memory!  I rose to the occasion, and dug deep.  The b’rachot came out fine!  After the Bar Mitzvah “boy” finished his Aliyah, much candy was thrown, and no serious injuries were sustained.  Volunteer Sandy assumed the role of “mammilla” and gave a beautiful parent’s blessing.  Volunteer Jodi took wonderful pictures which I am sure will appear in the media (or at least on the SAR EL website)!

 

This group of volunteers bonded into an instant family from the first day on the base.  Thank you to Pam for her insightful management of the program, the people, and the rigors of dealing with the Israeli way of doing things.  Pam’s early advice to me when I had complained to her about some inefficiency I had observed was:  “You’re not here to provide management consulting to the IDF, you’re here to do what they want you to do!”  Every trip back, I remind myself of that good advice.

 

I love this program, and I am so grateful that I can participate as often as I do.  For years, I have been looking for more ways to perform Tikun Olam (repairing the world); thank you SAR-EL for providing me with this opportunity.

*   *   *

 

Random Observation:  One of the soldiers working with us at the paratrooper base was obviously way too old to be either a draftee, a reservist, or even a career soldier.  He was probably even older than some of us volunteers.  It turns out that he had done his active duty and reserve duty with this unit for over fifty years, but declined to leave when his reserve commitment had expired; he came on to the base several times a week to work.  I learned that this practice is not uncommon in the IDF; commitment to the unit and the mission never expires.  He still pulled his weight and made a solid contribution.  His colleagues were glad to have his experience and his example for the younger troops.

 

Another Random Observation (same base):  The officer in charge of our warehouse was Kobi.  We knew that Kobi was a major, but he wore the rank insignia of a captain.  I asked him why he wasn’t wearing the correct rank insignia.  He told me that he didn’t want to waste his time going up to headquarters to go through the handshaking and pinning ceremony nonsense.  Everyone that mattered knew he was the boss, so there was no point.  Back to work.  By the way, Kobi offered to take our dirty work uniforms home with him over the weekend to wash and iron them.  Again, I have no words.  His offer illuminates the reality that Israelis are family, and the volunteers who come from overseas are also family.  Kobi understood that when we came back after the weekend we would have to wear the same dirty uniforms we wore last week since we had no access to laundry facilities.  So he did what anyone one would do, he took care of family.

 

As is the case on any military post anywhere in the world, the day’s work starts with flag raising.  On some bases we join the regular troops for flag raising, on some bases, we have our own ceremony.  Flag rising starts with the actual hoisting of the flag followed by the singing of HaTikva (the Hope).   Once that is completed, the Madricha instructs us to “make a chet” (the letter “H” in Hebrew, which puts us in a semi circle).  The Madrichot then make administrative announcements, confirm the daily assignments, give us the weather forecast and the exchange rate for currency, and of course, give us their version of today’s world news.  Their version of the important events occurring in the world may vary a bit from events of interest to the volunteers.  Remember, the Madrichot average about 19 years of age  and some have never been lived anywhere but in their parents’ house.  So we may hear in detail about the daily travails of the Kardashians, or the wedding of two world famous musicians that we have never heard of.  However, the most important announcement every morning is the assignment of daily bathroom-cleaning duty.  More about that later.

 

Back to food in the mess halls.  There is a drink that is usually served with dairy meals; I think the soldiers call it Shoko.  It’s a combination of chocolate milk and what I believe to be aged tap water.  It’s served in flimsy plastic bags, and there is no way to open it without spilling it.  The shape of the bag is a parallelogram so that the top corner sticks out inviting you to snip it off.  Don’t do it.  It’s a trap.  First of all, you can’t cut the plastic bag with the plastic knives that come with dairy meals.  And of course, there are no scissors, so soldiers try to gnaw the corner off with their teeth.  If they are successful, the fact that they are squeezing the bag will cause the Shoko to shoot out of the hole they have bitten into the bag.  I call the resulting mess Shoko-shirt.

 

My fifth SAR-EL stint was in the territories; I wrote the following letter after I came home:

 

Dear SAR-EL.  This was my fifth SAR-EL stint, and as with every other one, this again was the best.  Of course, I can’t say where we went and what we saw, but this trip was truly special.  We were at a base in an area that I never thought we would be sent to; we served with a battalion that I never thought we would be assigned to.  I took some photographs of generic subjects, desert-scapes and road signs, but the real memories will the photographs of the young men and women I took with my mind’s eye.  As always, we worked in the area of logistics, moving stuff from point A to point B, but we were surrounded by young fighters.  As everyone knows, the IDF is composed of essentially two types of soldiers: the fighters, and the “jobnicks”.  In the US Army, the equivalent would be the door-kickers and the REMFs (the RE stands for Rear Area).

 

We were in a warehouse packaging rifle cleaning kits for the soldiers in an improvised production line. A soldier approached me.

 

“Are you Johnny?”

“Yes, what’s your name?”

“I am Avraham (not his real name.)

“Na-eem meod (pleased to meet you), Avraham.”

“Na-eem meod.  They told me you were a fighter in Vietnam, Johnny.”

“That was a long time ago, Avraham, probably before your parents were born.”

“Why did you come here; you already did your fighting.”

“I came here to help you and Israel; my parents were in Auschwitz so I know how important it is for Jews to have a safe place in the world.  I also come here to make sure you and your fellow soldiers know that you are not alone.”

“Thank you for doing this.”

“It’s a mitzvah, no need to thank anyone.”

“What is the pin on your uniform?”

“It’s a five-year pin.  This is my fifth time of mitnadvut (volunteer service).”

“Johnny.  You have been doing this for five years?  I think you are crazy!”

“Many people agree with you.”  We both laugh.

 

I look at his red boots (combat boots worn by elite fighters).  Avraham, you are a fighter, right?”

“Yes.”

“Can I ask why you are working here in the warehouse while your comrades are training right outside?”

“I had an incident.”  He pauses.  “A Palestinian threw a pipe bomb at me.  It did not explode, but it struck me in the eye.”  He lifted his eyelid with his finger and I could see the injury to his bloodshot eye and the surrounding area. 

 

For the next few minutes he recounts the incident to me in detail including his counter measure to the combatant who had assaulted him.

 

“Johnny, I cannot sleep most of the time.  When you were fighting in Vietnam, did you have the same thing happen to you?  I see this scene over and over again in my head.  They have assigned me here until I can get over this.”

I stare at him.  “Yes, I have had that experience.  The recurring thoughts are called a loop.”

“When does it go away?”

“Never, . . . if you have a soul.”

“Never?”

“It gets better over time.  You learn to cope with it, but it comes back when you are weak or tired.”

“How can you cope?”

“I was lucky, medication worked for me; I still take anti-depressants, and they are very effective for me.  Others with more severe cases benefit from counseling and talking about their experiences and feelings with others who have had the same experience.”

“I have been talking to a counselor here.”

“In the States we have made significant progress working with PTSD; you know what that is, right?

“I think I am learning now.”

“One of the coping mechanisms I always remember is that if the things you see and do in combat disturb you, it means that your heart and soul are functioning properly.  If you tear yourself apart over right and wrong, then your parents raised you well.  If you never forget these experiences and learn from them, then you’re a Mensch.”

 

He gives me a hug.  I’m a little embarrassed because American men don’t do extended hugs.

 

“Avraham, make sure you get medication and counseling.  You will be fine; I am very proud of you.  You will probably not realize how much of a hero you are until you are my age and are talking to a young soldier, maybe your own child, who comes to you for advice.”

 

As with all other volunteers, I pray that some day our SAR-EL service will no longer be needed, and that all future trips to Israel will be to visit our historic and holy sights, or to spend time on the beach in Tel Aviv.  Until then, we’ll keep coming back and supporting our defenders.  Am Yisrael Chai.

*   *   *

One of the easier, i.e., less physical tasks that we have been asked to perform was checking telecom equipment and recharging batteries.  When vehicles return to base after patrol, they are swarmed with mechanics and technicians who immediately check fluids, belt tensions, tires, wipers, bulbs, remove commo gear (radios) and batteries to be replaced with fresh batteries and recalibrated communications gear.  The equipment coming off the vehicles goes to the commo shop for testing, refurbishing and preparation to be reinstalled.  Banks of batteries remain in their chargers so that fresh batteries are always available.  Radios are tested and contact posts are cleaned and re-coated with protective gel to protect them against corrosion.  Vehicles that require any automotive repair or maintenance are immediately moved to the garage for service.  Once they are done they are moved to the ready line where they are available for the next patrol.  We also check the communication gear in the drivers’ helmets which involves actually putting on the helmets and plugging them into a testing device.  I felt like Snoopy pretending to be the Red Baron.

Another activity which is always ongoing is supplying water for the troops in the field.  Loading cases of water from the warehouses to the trucks is hard work but not awful as assignments go.  Its great exercise for bending and twisting, and the warehouse managers are always reminding us to lift with our legs, not our backs.  It’s also a great reminder for the volunteers, especially during the hot summer months to stay hydrated.  We usually use palette jacks to wheel the pallets out to the trucks, but after a while it’s a heavy lift from the ground to the tailgate; unfortunately I’ve never seen hydraulic tailgates on the two-ton trucks the IDF uses as its workhorses, so we keep lifting.  After a couple of hours of loading water, there’s no need to hit the gym, but there’s a real need to hit the showers.  Tasks like these really remind you what it takes to keep an Army in the field; and there are thousands of such tasks.

By the way, staying hydrated with cold drinks is not always easy.  There are generally no refrigerators in the barracks, so we have to improvise.  Air conditioners are present in the some of the barracks but they are of all different varieties and designs, including those that are installed above the windows up at the top of the walls.  If you bend a wire hanger just right, you can suspend a bottle of soda or juice in front of the flow of cold air, and after a few hours its nice and cool.  I recommend that the bottle not be suspended directly over a sleeping volunteer for obvious reasons.

 

 

Random Observation:  The Masa Kumta, or Beret March, is the culmination of training for every Israeli soldier.  At the end of the march, he or she earns the beret of whichever Brigade of activity the soldier has trained for and has been accepted into.  I have read that the Masa Kumta for the paratroopers or other special forces can be as long as eighty kilometers.  There are video snippets of the marches for the various units on YouTube.  They generally involve overnight marches with arrivals at the ceremonial graduation sites in the morning.  The marches always involve carrying litters for the wounded with soldiers rotating roles between carrying litters and playing the part of the wounded soldier being carried.  As with the US Army, the IDF leaves no soldier behind; that philosophy is clearly reflected even in the graduation march.  Once the soldiers approach the graduation ceremony site at the end of the march, they are generally greeted along the final few kilometers with family, friends and supporters who “join” the march hugging their “children” and feeding them drinks and snacks and taking lots of pictures.  The march is followed by the Tekkes Kumta, when the soldiers remove their Bakum Kumta—the brownish green beret they received in basic training—and replace them with their new colored beret reflecting their new specialties and units.  Each soldier is called up to the front of the formation to receive his or her new beret.  For a very special few, a training officer may take off his own beret and give it to an outstanding graduate as a sign of respect.  A soldier will keep his or her colored beret for the complete term of his or her service including Milu’im duty, even if he or she is later moved to another unit or specialty.  I love watching the families in the stands as they await the calling out of the name of their child and to see the pride they exhibit the moment their child becomes their defender.  There’s lots of hollering and picture taking and tears of pride!  It’s hard to describe the emotional nature of the ceremony; you really have to experience it to understand it.  These are the children of the thousand generations that have survived the Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition, the countless colonial and occupying powers dating back centuries and ages, and of our slavery in Egypt. This is the army that speaks the resurrected language of the Torah; they are the hope.  These are the new Maccabees

 

My sixth trip was my first assignment to an IDF Air Force activity.  I wrote the following after my return.

 

This October was my 6th volunteer stint with SAR-EL and essentially the third with the same core group of volunteers—we are becoming like family.  This trip we served at an Air Force logistics activity near Tel Aviv.  It was a great experience, we all worked very hard, and I learned a great deal about the IDF again, and interestingly, a great deal about the connections between the IDF and the United States’ logistical support for the state of Israel.

 

First, a quick lesson in what we used to call “Materials Breakdown Activity” back from when I was in the US Army.  The trucks come on to the base and deliver cargo pallets of supplies to the warehouse.  The troops unload the pallets and break down the bulk supplies into manageable groups, such as 100 bolts, 50 rifle magazines, 20 cans of paint, etc., and place them on ceiling-high warehouse stacking shelves.  They record the counts and the shelf locations in the computer, and then they are ready to fill orders from the field.  Nothing secret here, just hard work, lots of organization and a zero tolerance for errors.

 

As we grouped the deliverable items, I noticed that the stock numbers for almost all of these items were in a format familiar to me—they were the Federal Stock Number formats that the US military uses.  Most of the gear we received was of American origin; I felt right at home—I could read all of the descriptions and instructions!  Most of us have read about the $30 Billion in aide that flows to Israel from the US as part of our 10-year support package. Few of us are privileged to actually see the aide arrive and get out into active service!

 

My warehouse manager’s name was Yossi.  He managed a “dati” warehouse where all of the soldiers were religiously observant.  Their morning ritual was to lay tfillin, pray, then make the volunteers comfortable with coffee and treats—then go to work.  It was a spiritually elevating experience just to watch.  They started us off with easy tasks.  When we finished our first assigned “day’s work” by 11 AM, they understood that we were there to work!  After that, there was no shortage of work and we were accepted as part of the warehouse crew.  We got to do everything but drive the cherry picker/fork lift.  Probably a good decision!  By the way, the size of the warehouse was posted as four dunams; a measurement right out of Torah.

 

This was also the first time that some Sar-El volunteers wore the new rust colored volunteer berets.  Everyone loved them, especially the soldiers.  The picture shows us with the new berets while we attended a change of command ceremony at the base.  The IDF Air Force General in attendance posed for a picture with us.  While all of the attending soldiers were standing at attention on the parade grounds, the Sar-El volunteers were seated with the guests of honor in shaded stands.  Have I mentioned how much they appreciate us? 

We were informed on the first day that arrangements had been made for the volunteers to eat in the officer’s mess.  We told our Madricha that part of our responsibilities included communicating with all of the soldiers, especially the younger ones about Sar-El, and the fact that the IDF does not stand alone; that we volunteer to help them and support them.  It was important for us to eat with the enlisted troops as well.  Once we made our concerns known, it was agreed that we could switch back and forth—and we did.  The lady serving breakfast behind the counter every morning knew we were volunteers, and snuck in little pastries which she surreptitiously placed on our trays.  I have no words for that; we were home with Saftah (Grandma).

 

I have run out of adjectives and superlatives to describe my annual Sar-El experiences.  We get so much more out of the experience than we put in.  Yes, we had only one shower for ten volunteers, and it took us the first week to discover the secret location of the electric switch which controlled the hot water.  Yes, eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers three times a day (along with some other foods) are a less than a five star diet, but all of those “hardships” pale when compared to the profound sense of accomplishment and joy we all experienced.  I am already counting down the months until next October.

*   *   *

 

Israel is bounded by three seas, the Red, the Dead and the Med.  Yet, water is still a precious commodity.  Much of the land is arid and there are long periods of drought.  Israel is a world leader in desalinization science, but that source will never be enough to completely overcome the underlying climatology.  Signs in hotel rooms and on IDF bases remind people to conserve water and to reuse towels and bedding to avoid needless rewashing.  Israelis are keenly aware of water conservation; tourists probably not so much.  Our Madrichot do remind Sar-Elniks to be careful with water usage, especially during years when water is not plentiful.  One of our weekend guides on a tour pointed out a narrow stream alongside the highway we were driving on.  It was barely visible, and he asked us if we could identify the two-foot wide trickle.  It was the mighty Jordan River!  The driver told us that when he passes this part of the river and identifies it for some of the Christian groups he transports, passengers ask him to stop the bus so they can get out, take off their shoes and wade in the water.

 

Another feature of Israel’s water situation is what I call square forests.  Square plots of trees, such as banana trees, in otherwise barren desert areas which are mechanically irrigated and nourished.  Sometimes entire copses are covered with mesh to provide shade, reduced evaporation and protection from insects or other pests.  It really is amazing to see the barren land yield large quantities of food as a result of scientific innovation and hard work.  High tech farming, hydroponics and animal husbandry are another aspect of this amazing land which benefits greatly from these advanced technologies, and also exports them to other countries to help them alleviate their food and water needs.  Sharing these technologies appears to be an important aspect Israel’s outreach to its African neighbors.  Helping such nations to become more food or water self-sufficient creates an incredibly strong bond which, hopefully, can overcome other political differences over time.

 

My fiend Jim and I came up with the idea of an on-line SAR-EL store gradually.  In 2016 we finally got serious about the idea and brainstormed the nuts and bolts of putting it together.  We thought there should be “semi-official” SAR-EL products which would make the volunteers clearly identifiable on base and would enhance the appearance of the uniforms as well as providing non-uniform items that the volunteers could wear off-base.   We ran the idea past Pam and she gave us her blessing; she also provided a link on the SAR-EL website to the store.  So we worked with a fulfillment contractor who had an on-line presence and who could maintain our stock of inventory.  The first item we offered was the set of shoulder epaulettes.  We had actually had those manufactured prior to opening the store website, and Pam had been selling them at Ben Gurion for a year or two.  SAR-EL’s standard epaulettes were inexpensive printed nylon loops that were given to each volunteer by the Madrichot at each base.  Our new epaulettes were made of a much better woven material and were embroidered rather than printed.  It turned out from the feedback that the volunteers loved them, and most returning volunteers immediately chose to purchase them.  Other items quickly followed such as the rust-colored berets, embroidered shirts, permanent ID cards, and of course, the 5 and 10-year longevity wing pins.  By the way, the wings on the pins represent the fact that almost all volunteers have to fly to Israel in order to participate in the program.  Orders from around the world come in every month.  Once a month one of us goes to our fulfillment contractor to pick up the monthly orders to deliver them to the post office.  We have been donating the “profits” from sales to SAR-EL.  I put the word profits in quotes because we haven’t quite recovered our initial investment yet—and may not for quite a while, but we do make annual monetary contributions anyway which Pam puts to very good use.  Our real “profit” is that we continue to be involved with SAR-EL during the year even though we are back home, and that we provide a service to SAR-EL that helps the volunteers.

 

The Oryx is a deer native to Africa and the Middle East; it is also mentioned in the Torah.  As with wildlife all over the world, native species are being exposed to man and his relentless expansion of living space.  We encountered a family of Oryx looking for food behind a gas station/convenience store in the Negev. No one on the bus knew what they were until we Googled them.  They are, of course, now a protected species in Israel.

 

Sar-El trip number sevenWe are in he Upper Galilee at the Southern approach to the Golan Heights.  We are becoming expert at organizing work in IDF warehouses!  I think our group is starting to get a reputation; we can finish a week’s worth of work in two days–so be prepared, IDF, to keep us busy!  I can operate a pallet jack like a professional and move tons of equipment in minutes!  After forty years of sitting behind a desk, I am questioning my career choices.  We are the “other October group” composed of Americans, Canadians, Germans, and Swiss who proudly wear the new Rust-colored beret.  Our “sister group” is the group of Canadians who also come every October to pack medical supplies.  This year Pam, our coordinator and leader, had eleven groups of volunteers in October we were told.

 

Some of us at our base have been assigned to the kitchen—it did not improve the cuisine.  Some of us have been assigned to trimming vegetation—the camp remained a dreary Army post.  Some of us have been assigned to painting yellow lines in the warehouse parking and storage areas—we cannot reveal our secret of painting miraculously straight lines! 

 

The camp commander, Nir, had us in to his office early during the first week.  He welcomed us warmly and had fruit and soft drinks on his conference table for us.  He went around the table to learn about each one of us.  He insisted that we report any problems to him immediately.  He looked at me, and said:  “When I look on you, I see my father.  I want my soldiers to treat you like they should treat my father.”  Did I mention that he is six years younger than my son?  One stark fact which the commander did drive home to us was that this base would become the key hub of logistics support in the North should a war at Israel’s northern border ever occur again.  Base staffing would increase ten-fold with an infusion of milu’im (reservists); it made us acutely aware of the importance of the work we were doing!

 

Groundhogs and hyenas complimented the natural environment at this base.  The groundhogs were responsible for endless tunnel entrances (and tripping hazards) spread all over, and the hyenas provided an eerie baying sound mostly around sundown.  We spent our evenings showing each other pictures of our children and grandchildren and comparing our medical conditions—what a great group!  On the weekends we were exhausted but that did not stop us from again walking the entire length of the Tayelet in Tel Aviv all the way down to the port of Jaffa and back.  Israel is amazing!  The volunteers in our group had dinners together at great neighborhood restaurants and shopped at the Carmel market together. 

 

Every year I understand more about Israel and its unique dynamics.  While we were at our base in the North, a Hamas rocket from Gaza destroyed a house in Be’er Sheva in the Negev.  A young mother got her three children safely to a shelter when she heard the sirens at 4 o’clock in the morning just moments before her home was destroyed.  (Picture copied from open source on the Internet).  Israel later retaliated by destroying twenty targets in Gaza.  Life in Ha’aretz is all the more precious for its precarious nature; but that is their “normal”.  If we can make a difference through SAR-EL by showing this young generation of soldiers in the IDF that we care about them and love them, and that they are not alone in the world, then our annual volunteering is worthwhile.  I urge those of you who are contemplating a volunteer stint to take that step.  Get on the plane; resign yourself to some challenging conditions for your body, but some elevating experiences for your soul.  You won’t be sorry!

 

Thank you again, SAR-EL, for giving us the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah of Tikun Olam!  See you Ba’shanah ha’ba’ah (next year).

*   *   *

 

As I am writing this part of the blog, there is great political posturing in the United States over building a wall at its southern border with Mexico.  Whether you are for or against a wall, the issue brings to light the question of whether a separation wall really works.  Israel has experience with such walls that may be instructive.  As a result of the Intifada, the insurgency that plagued Israel in the early 2000’s, Israel decided to build a separation wall along the entire “border” between Israel proper and Judea and Samaria.  If memory serves, the wall was built in 2003/2004 and ran over 450 miles along the demarcation line.  The purpose of the separation wall was to stop the spate of suicide bombers coming across the line from towns and villages near the border in the West Bank who were crossing over at unguarded off-road locations.  The wall worked.  I have read that the attacks stopped almost completely.  The wall runs between ten and twenty meters in height I am told, and it is made of different materials in different locations.  Some parts of the wall are steel plate; other parts are brick or stone.  Some are clearly constructed to be aesthetically pleasing whereas others are merely functional.  I presume it depends on whether they are near populated areas and need to be more pleasing to the eye or in sparsely populated areas where it doesn’t matter as much.

 

I grew up in New York and when I was a child, I visited our relatives in households that always had the blue and white pushkes in every entrance hallway to their New York City or Long Island apartments.  They were the Jewish National Fund’s Tzedakah (charity) boxes.  I never knew exactly what the donations went for, but my Dad always made sure he gave me some change (even when we were truly poor) to put in them.  For me they served two purposes.  First of course, there was the benefit to Israel from the myriad collections from those boxes to help the fledgling nation of Israel.  Second, they instilled in me a condition of understanding that charity to Israel was a natural part of being Jewish.  It was just something we did.  I really didn’t understand about Keren Kayemet, but I knew somehow that contributing was important to all of my parents’ friends and relatives, therefore something that we had in common, and it was therefore very important.  One of our SAR-EL field trips was a visit led by a Keren Kayemet representative to some of their current projects. We visited a series of man-made reservoirs as well a large experimental plant nursery run by the organization.  Unfortunately, we did not visit any of the forests in which JNF-funded trees were planted—I was a little disappointed because I wanted to see that tree with my name on it that my Dad z”l assured me was there!  Remember I said in one of my letters that no matter how hard the work is, you get more out of SAR-EL than you put into it?  Well here was another example.  SAR-EL through the JNF trip reconnected me to some wonderful old memories of my childhood and parents.  Priceless!

 

A quick aside.  My wife and I took a day-trip to visit Petra in Jordan.  I was not crazy about going to Jordan, but Petra is one of the wonders of the world; we were this close so we had to see it for ourselves.  Note: do not visit Petra while you are volunteering with SAR-ELit is prohibited.  The rock carvings of Petra are incredible; the valley is inexplicably complex and beautiful.  Be aware however that you must avoid two things while you are in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  First, do not take a tourists’ camel ride—nothing good can come from it!  Camels are unfriendly; they smell bad and they don’t like us.  Second, do not try to negotiate over the price of souvenirs with local Arab vendors—they will leave you destitute!  Handeling may be fun for you, but it is a blood sport for them.  Trust me . . . no contest!  Jordanian souvenirs made in China and distributed through a shell company in Pakistan can be purchased cheaper through Amazon Prime.  So to summarize, go to see the incredible carvings of Petra, perhaps have a seaside dinner at a nice restaurant in the seaside resort of Aqaba on the Red Sea across from Eilat on your way back to Israel so you can experience some very excellent Middle Eastern dining and hospitality.  But remember, no camel rides!

I frequently hear from prospective volunteers who ask about what they should know about Israel before volunteering for SAR-EL.  Rather than giving them any one specific practical tip, I tell them to try to become aware of what will be going on in Israel during the period of their service.  For instance, are there any elections going on?  Although Israeli politics are completely incomprehensible to most of us, it is important to know what is occupying the minds of Israelis while we are there.  Just so you know, in Israel new political parties are formed and old ones dissolved in the period leading up to elections and voters are very involved.  The Knesset (parliament) seats representatives from all parties who garner more than 3.5% of the total popular vote, so there are lots of “mergers” between smaller parties to come up with the threshold number of votes to be seated or to win more seats than other coalitions.  Also, by way of advice to newcomers, it is important to be acutely aware of the current security status of the country when you arrive.  Has it been relatively quiet in the recent past or have there been rocket attacks from Gaza?  Have there been car rammings or other attacks at border crossings?  All of this information will help you understand the moods, attitudes and mindset of the soldiers you will be working with. If there is a long wait at the gate to the base after a security incident, you will be more patient about the delay.  If the warehouse managers are working you a little harder or longer or are a little less patient with you if the IDF is actively engaged with attackers, you will understand.  So where can you research these issues?  My methods include reading (at least scanning) three Israeli newspapers every day; Israel HaYom (leans right), the Jerusalem Post (leans left), the Times of Israel (also a little left).  I also watch I-24News, an on-line TV news station ($5 per month, but well worth it), and I also listen to Israel-News-Talk-Radio (free, on-line, slightly right).  The designations of left and right are, of course, only my personal opinion.  In short, be an informed volunteer/visitor, and again, its best not to discuss politics while you are serving.  Also, you can still keep informed while you are on the base.  Even though there is no Wi-Fi on the base, 3G and sometimes 4G seem to work pretty well so you can get your news updates as well as being able to call home.

Even though I just said I don’t generally give specific practical tips, I will share with you how I handle telephone communications from Israel.  Keep in mind that telecom programs change all the time, but my method seems to work year after year.  First, I opt to use my own cell phone (an iPhone 10).  That does not mean that I keep my US telephone number.  I purchase a new SIM card at the telephone kiosk at Ben Gurion airport.  I pop out my US SIM card and pop in my new Israeli SIM card.  That gives me a new Israeli telephone number, and, depending on the plan I purchase, a certain number of talk minutes and megabytes of data.  I generally purchase the most expensive monthly plan available just because I can, and it gives me almost unlimited phone service both within Israel and the US. The plans range roughly between $40 and $90 per month.  Most of your on-screen icons will work, and you will be able to get and send all of your email and you can use your electronic messaging.  Also, all of your pictures will be available.  Others choose to use their US SIM card and keep their US number by making arrangements with their own carriers such as Verizon or Sprint; it’s a matter of personal preference, but it’s more expensive.  Some volunteers turn off cell service and use WhatsApp or Face Time phone to make phone calls using Wi-Fi.  Wi-Fi is okay in Israel but nowhere as fast or available as in the US.  Some folks order pre-paid SIM cards on-line before they leave for Israel.  I have seen examples of considerable frustration on the part of volunteers who arrive and can’t get their new service to function properly and can’t reach the 800 number because their phone doesn’t work.  Once I get my SIM card installed and service connected, I call my wife to give her my new phone number.  I remind her that to call me, she needs to first dial 011, which is the U.S. exit code.  Then dial 972, the country code for Israel.  Next, dial the single digit area code that is part of your Israeli number and then the new seven-digit Israeli phone number.  It’s that simple, especially if you (in the US) save that combination to your phone.  To call the US from Israel, first dial Israel’s exit code, which is 00, then dial the number 1 which is the US, and then the area code and phone number; again, its that easy.  And remember to put your US SIM card in a very safe place (for example, scotch tape it to the inside of your passport) so you can reinstall it on your way home.

One of the tasks you will be required to perform while in Israel is to shop for souvenirs for friends and family.  Israeli merchants are more than ready to help you with this task.  Even inexpensive items are special to people just because they come from Israel.  Ben Yehuda Street, one block to the east of Hayarkon, is a great place to shop for souvenirs (and to just go for a walk).  There are numerous gift shops as well as good coffee shops to stop at and rest.  Jewish-themed gifts are plentiful as are gifts you can bring home for non-Jewish friends. My non-Jewish friends actually seem to be especially grateful for souvenirs from the Holy Land.  For myself, I have purchased a different Fiddler on the Roof statuette almost every trip to Israel.  I started the practice because we inherited a Fiddler on the Roof statuette from my mother-in-law z”l who lived her last days in our home.  Now I have made a collection of the item she was fond of.

Note that many of your friends and family will want creams and lotions made by the company called Ahava (the Hebrew word for love).  The main ingredients common to all of their products are Dead Sea minerals.  I have found that the closer you are to tourist areas, the more expensive Ahava items become.  At the Dead Sea hotels, where the minerals come from, Ahava products are sold with loan applications!  On Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv they are usually on sale at half price or less.  I have actually purchased a number of souvenirs on Ben Yehuda a day prior to going home and the proprietor threw a handful of Ahava products into my bag of gifts no charge.  To be honest, the proprietor likes me, I go to his store at the end of every trip and load up on all of the items I have been asked to bring home.  He also gives me a SAR-EL discount, anywhere from 15 to 20%, depending on what kind of day he’s had.  He also takes extra care to bubble wrap all of my fragile purchases—he’s an expert; I’ve never arrived home with broken souvenirs.

Another question I get is “what are the accommodations really like.  The answer to that question depends on which base you are assigned to.  Some bases have the ability to provide fairly decent living space with good proximity to dining areas and shower facilities.  Others not so much.  Depending on the base, you will either be two or three or four to a room, but at some bases it might be seven or eight.   Some bases have toilet and shower facilities in the same building, others a short outside walk away.  Some bases will house you in portable housing units of steel construction; others in permanent cement buildings.  Beds are either steel frame cots, wooden platform cots or canvas cots.  All covered with thin field matrasses.  Some cots are constructed as bunk beds, but generally we use the upper bunk to store suitcases or personal effects.  Some times there are lockable cabinets, but the volunteers generally have to provide their own locks.  The furnishings are never new, and sometimes appear to be pretty beaten up.  Most of us with prior military experience know how to “acquire” all of the additional items we needed to turn these living spaces into very livable quarters.  Blankets and sheets are usually provided, but sometimes the IDF gives us sleeping bags.  If you want a pillow, bring one.  Blowup pillows take up very little space.  There are generally enough electrical outlets for each volunteer to have access to his/her own, but you must bring your own converters.  Israeli electricity is 220 volts; in the US our electrical system is 110.  If you want to use your hair dryer, your cell phone recharger or your electric razor, you’ve got to use a converter.  Volunteers are responsible for keeping their living quarter neat and clean.  Generally this is not a problem, no one wants to live in a mess.  We are also responsible for keeping the bathrooms clean.  This can be a bit problematic because we frequently share them with the soldiers, and they are more that happy to let the volunteers do the heavy lifting.  Truth is, that why we’re here.  Men and women are always housed in separate quarters and have separate bathroom facilities.  Entering opposite gender quarters is strictly prohibited even if the visitor is married to the occupant.  I have never seen this rule violated.  At one base we were assigned to officers’ quarters, but we soon learned that officers don’t live much better than the conscripted troops. The only difference was that we were assigned three to a room and the officers were two to a room.  At another base they temporarily converted a warehouse office to a dormitory, and we were seven occupants with one shower.  We made it work through cooperative, creative scheduling.  Yes, you may or may not have to endure conditions that you would never put up with in your private life—just like a real Army.  The key is a positive attitude with an eye toward reminding yourself why you are there.  Just shake your head and laugh it off—then write a blog.

Its Thursday afternoon and we board the buses from the base back to Tel Aviv for the weekend.  SAR-EL has arranged for us to make a stop at a seaside Kibbutz (cooperative settlement) for a tour and some more education.  It was called Kibbutz Nahsholim. This beautiful kibbutz is located on low cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on Dor beach.  The panoramic seascape is priceless.  Most of the Kibbutz’ members no longer work on the Kibbutz but they still live here—I can see why.  If this property were in the Caribbean it would be an expensive vacation destination with high-rise condos and hotels.    But the Kibbutzniks have kept the location pristine and solitary.  The focus of the Kibbutz’ management is twofold, first, to recover historic relics from the sea-bottom and to place them in their museum, and second to address sea pollution.  We took a tour of the museum and it was fascinating, especially those exhibits and artifacts which attested to the presence of maritime commerce along these coasts for thousands of years.  The artifacts included coins, tools and pottery.  Other exhibits showed plastic litter and trash taken from the shoreline and made into works of art like flowers to be sold by the museum for donations.

After the museum tour some of the volunteers and Madrichot climbed down the cliff side to the beach and sat on the rocks for a while.  When it was time to leave no one wanted to go.  Getting us back to the bus took a while.  Reality Check: the Kibbutz is also home to an Iron Dome battery we were told.  Lastly, one Madricha and one volunteer in the accompanying picture would wind up getting married!  The volunteer, Nos, would make Aliyah and then serve in the IDF in the Mikayts (elite dog handlers) unit.

On the base with the previously mentioned famous 55th Tzanhanim.  Our quarters are located in a small walled-in barracks compound within a larger compound.  The compound has about twenty steel-constructed mobile living quarters that can house up to eight occupants each in double bunks.  We spread out and go two or three to a module.  Luxury!  There are also two bathroom modules on the men’s side, more luxury.  A double steel wall about ten feet tall surrounds the compound.  In order to get into the compound you have to walk between the walls.  I asked the Madricha why we needed two walls?  She responded that the first wall slows down the incoming bullets; the second wall stops them.  Yup, it’s that simple.  I had no more questions.

I get up at night to visit the bathroom.  I note that a number of volunteers are standing around the little central “smoking area” (none of us smoke).  It’s about three o’clock in the morning.  We’ve been there about a week and a half and we’ve worked pretty hard so sleeping at night has not been a problem.  So why is everybody having trouble sleeping this night?   Its because there is no gun fire from the firing range on the other side of the wall—its too quiet.  We’ve gotten so used to the nighttime training fire that the unexpected quiet has disturbed our sleep.  We walk out of the compound and observe that small units are doing nighttime-tactical-training on the road; 8-man squads moving silently in spite of all the battle gear they are carrying, and as always, carrying one soldier on a litter.  An eighth man is walking backwards covering the rear.  (Been there, done that).  They look at us in our sleeping shorts and flip-flops.  We smile at them; I think one of them may have smiled back.  They have determined that we are clearly no threat so they ignore us.

As we walked back inside our compound, I noticed that someone had removed the Asoor L’Ashayn (No Smoking) sign in the compound and had hidden it behind the inside wall.  I try to bring home at least one special and unique souvenir every time I volunteer with SAR-EL.  I admit that the sign now proudly hangs in my garden gazebo above my cigar chaise.

During my earlier stints, SAR-EL volunteers used to gather at the old Tel Aviv bus station on Sunday mornings in South Tel Aviv to get bus transportation back to their assigned bases.  Now the meeting place has been changed to the Arlozarov Train station in Central Tel Aviv.  I’m guessing the train station is a bit safer and easier to reach.  But I actually miss the bus station.  As I described earlier, I loved watching the stream of young soldiers returning to their bases.  I also enjoyed the sense of being immersed in the work-a-day Israeli humdrum of people rushing to work, vendors selling their goods; food stands offering a variety of foods that are unavailable and sometimes even unknown to me.  I watched the pop-up stands selling the electronics that Israeli youngsters love so much, the phone covers, the ear buds, the battery chargers, and of course the soldiers surrounding those booths keeping track of what’s new and hoping they’ll be able to afford such items when they get out and can earn a decent living.  In the mean time they carry their rifles and backpacks through the bus station, buy their snacks and sodas, and actively defend the nation.  I am reminded of another volunteer who wrote a piece for the SAR-EL website.  He recounted that a combat soldier had stopped him and asked him why he was at the bus station so early in the morning.  The SAR-ELnik explained that he was a foreign volunteer with SAR-EL and that he was on his way back to an IDF base to work in a logistics warehouse for the week.  The soldier took off his unit pin and handed it to the volunteer and said thank you.  I do miss the bus station, and especially the McDonalds.

Many of the soldiers we come across in SAR-EL are youngsters still in training.  We see them not only on base, but also, surprisingly, in formal groups at museums and military cemeteries, specifically at Mount Herzl.  Their training includes not only the martial arts, but cultural and historical subjects as well.  It is clear that the Israeli government wants its young soldiers to understand the history and culture of they are defending.  A good number of the trainees are recent immigrants or descendant from recent immigrant families, so this type of training is of great value. I had previously mentioned that on one of our assignments we had been involved with packing Kosher for Passover meals for soldiers in the field over the holiday.  While we were on that production line, a company of female trainees joined us; they had only been in the Army a few weeks.  Trainees are identified by colored tape on their shoulder epaulets.  Different colors or combinations of colors represent different training units.  The unit that joined us wore red tape on their shoulders and they looked very young.  In speaking with them they told us that these trainees would be trained to be border watchers, soldiers who monitor security devices with the critical tasks of alerting security forces if they observe suspicious movement.  I can’t think of a more important responsibility for an 18-year old to shoulder.  As a curious aside, I read up on border watchers and read an interesting article about soldiers on the Autism spectrum who were also assigned to this type of duty.  It appears that their condition makes them particularly adept at discerning subtle movements or changes on the screens they are watching and being able to concentrate for long periods of time without distraction.  These soldiers are also recruited into the elite Unit 9900 (not classified, open sources) to monitor, amongst other things, live satellite and drone images.  So, another example of the inclusiveness of Israeli society, particularly within the IDF, in reaching out to all communities, including the Autism community.

Its another in-between weekend and we are off to Jerusalem again.  Bus number 480 leaves the Arlozarov station in Tel Aviv on its hour-long drive to Jerusalem.  It costs eighteen shekels, about $4.50.  The center divider on Highway 1 has a number of hulks of burnt out IDF vehicles that attest to historical battles over this critical stretch of road.  Israelis don’t forget.  I sit down next to a Dati (observant) woman.  The seats are tight, so I place a newspaper between us to avoid direct contact.  She nods appreciatively.

I have a favorite restaurant in Jerusalem; it’s the Café Rimon on Ben Yehuda Street.  Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem is a wide pedestrian walkway popular with tourists and locals with great shops and restaurants, and great places to buy personalized yarmulkes.   Café Rimon is a kosher restaurant with both a Milchik (dairy) and a separate Fleishik (meat) section.  That’s pretty unusual since most kosher restaurants are either one of the other.  One of my favorite meals there is their sesame tuna strips.  It comes with French fries, which I really shouldn’t eat, and a selection of dipping sauces and breads and a small bowl of Humus and a bowl of eggplant.  It all goes well with a bottle of Gold Star (pronounced Golt Shtahr), the local Israeli beer.  To be more precise, Café Rimon is the dairy side of the restaurant and the Rimon Bistro right next door is the meat side—actually a steak house.  As with many popular locations, this restaurant was also the target of suicide bombers in the early 2000’s.  The staff is both Jewish and Arab, and there have always been lines to get in whenever I have been there.  The lines are especially long on Saturday evenings waiting for Shabbat to end.  Being kosher, the restaurant is of course closed on Shabbat.  That being said, if you are first through the door on Saturday night, you will wait a while for your order to be served because the kitchen is probably just opening when you walk in.

Of course any trip to the old city of Jerusalem winds up in a walking tour.  That means that wherever you want to go in Jerusalem, you will get sidetracked passing by other ancient sites or points of incredible interest.  One site that is such a place in Jerusalem is the Cardo.  The Romans traditionally built a Cardo thoroughfare in Roman-constructed cities as main streets from North to South.  What makes the Jerusalem Cardo special is that centuries of destruction and reconstruction had completely buried the column-lined boulevard with its covered walkways and vendor stalls and a completely new street with buildings and shops and busy traffic had been built above it.  The Cardo starts near the Damascus gate.  Colorful mural depictions of what life and commerce on the ancient Cardo must have looked like are part of its excavation and reconstruction project.  Living in the US where our oldest institutions are all less than 300 year old, walking on two thousand year old cobblestones and hand-cut pavers is quite an experience.

I look at the streets of Jerusalem; I am reminded that this city is mentioned 669 times in the Tenach and I recall from Hebrew School the words of the prophet Zechariah (8:4) “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age.”  That’s the miracle I see, a free Jerusalem where people of all faiths are free to worship, and where the peace of Jerusalem is vouchsafed by the IDF.

Time flies on weekends for me in Israel.  The weekends are busy and pass quickly.  Before you know it, its Sunday morning and we are on our way back to the base.  While we wait for the busses, volunteers exchange their tales of what they did over the weekend.  Some visited friends and family, some took tours, others just walked around Tel Aviv and visited it’s unique neighborhoods.  Some actually have apartments in Israel and spend their time there.  All their stories have one thing in common; they all center on the joy of just being in Israel.  Pam is always present to make sure everyone gets on the right busses and handling last minute issues.  It’s also another opportunity for her to sell SAR-EL souvenirs to help raise additional funds for the organization.  We get back to the base, and plop down on our bunks.  Usually it’s right around lunchtime so we change into uniform quickly and have a quick lunch in the mess hall.  Then we join the other workers in the warehouses.  We feel a little guilty because they have been working since early morning, and we are just getting there.  One of the structures that we pass on many bases are the street level bomb shelters; long cylindrical concrete pipes with horizontal blast walls on either end.  I am told that their primary use is for smoking cigarettes while it’s raining.  Let’s hope that’s all they ever need to be used for.

Author’s note:  In rereading my blog over and over again to make sure that I am being accurate, consistent and mildly articulate, I realize that I view my Israel experience through rose-colored glasses.  I guess that’s on purpose.  I realize that there are a lot of complicated issues that can be viewed positively or negatively.  I choose to view them positively.  Yes, I understand the legitimate tensions between Israeli and American Jews regarding such issues as “who is a Jew”, or the right wing political bent of most Israeli Jews versus the general left wing bent of most American Jews.  I realize that diaspora Jewry views the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as overbearing and elitist, and unable to understand or consider their minhag (liturgical practice).  I also understand that Israeli Jews view American Jews as pampered and soft and not supportive enough of Israel.  I know we have a complicated relationship but I choose not to make that my issue.  Politicians and activists live on this kind of stuff, I don’t any more—I’m too old.  The bottom line is that we both need each other.  Israel needs the diaspora and the diaspora needs Israel.  We are family; we need to be dispersed so that we can help each other.  We are each other’s insurance policy if anything goes sideways in either community.  So in short, if you enjoy participating in these issues, feel free.  I am content to let others handle issues I have no control over.  I will do Tikun Olam and Ahavat Yisrael one person at a time, one contribution at a time, and one visit at a time.

Again, we are back at the base.   We have just finished Aruchat Tzohora’im (lunch) in the Chayder Ochel (mess hall).  We are walking back to the warehouses along the footpath along the edge of the warehouse complex.  There is a high chain- link fence, which is old and decaying running next to the path.  It is entwined with dead vines and trash blown there by the wind.  On the other side, the field is full of weeds and debris and there are two hulks of old buses rusting away.  I am surprised that there can be that much of an abandoned and unkempt area on an active military base–given how economically all other space is used.  I ask Kobi, our manager, who is walking back with us, about the area.  He tells me that this is an area for training certain Special Forces units (specifically, the protectors of officials and dignitaries) in hostage rescue, and the area is configured to simulate actual field conditions—now it makes more sense.  He also tells me that the buildings on the other side of the field, which appear to be abandoned, are used to train the same soldiers how to rappel down the exterior of buildings during an attack.  He also tells us that if we come back to this area after nightfall, we can watch the troops practicing those skills.  He tells us we don’t need to be afraid of errant gunfire—they will be using blanks during training.  He also tells me, since he knows I am a veteran, to pay attention to the soldiers firing burst of three rounds from their weapons rather than firing on full automatic.  He tells me that the IDF has found that burst firing is more effective than full-auto fire in combat and saves valuable ammunition.  I can tell you from experience that firing short controlled bursts takes an enormous amount of discipline when you are dealing with the adrenaline of a fire fight—I am impressed that the IDF trains its soldiers to that level of discipline.  The soldiers use the Hebrew nursery rhyme Yo-Nah-Tan, Ha-Kah-Tan (one-two-three, one-two-three) to time their trigger pulls according to Kobi.  I look at Kobi and remember that before he was a middle-aged warehouse boss/reservist, he was a combat soldier in the paratroopers and still wears the red boots of a warrior.

Yet another weekend activity; we visited the town of Acco on the northern coast of the Mediterranean, just north of Haifa and near the Lebanese border.  A short history is appropriate: In May of 1947, the Irgun (part of the soon to be nascent army of the fledgling state of Israel) staged a prison break for Irgun and Lehi prisoners held by the British in the ancient prison at Acco (Acre or Accra).  Irgun soldiers, about twenty of them, dressed as British military Royal Engineers and, appearing in a “British convoy” of trucks, approached the prison and blew a hole into the prison’s wall and helped dozens of Jewish prisoners escape during their scheduled exercise period—along with several hundred Arab prisoners.  I know this because it is one of the best scenes in one of my favorite classic movies, Exodus, starring the late Paul Newman.  We visited the old Crusader fort in Acco, which housed the British prison just mentioned, and took a wonderful guided tour.  The architecture was remarkable.  The ancient Crusader halls were impressive.  You could actually imagine the armored medieval knights seated around the long oaken tables in the great halls having their meals. The quality of the construction and the size of the connected buildings made it clear that the crusaders planned to be in the Holy Land for a very long time and they wanted safe, defensible and secure quarters. The fact that this structure had been used over the centuries as a prison was no surprise; the walls were thick and the location made escape unlikely. For me, another piece of ancestral history fell into place.

Other questions I hear from potential volunteers concern communications on base.  So here’s the scoop.  Assigned groups of volunteers are composed of those who all speak the same language.  So if you are an English speaker, you will be placed with a group whose primary language is English.  Further, the Madrichot who are assigned to lead your group will be proficient in that same language.  Frequently, the Madricha will have your language as their primary language given how many young Olim (immigrants) there are.  Soldiers on the base may or may not be proficient in your language, but many soldiers will know some English because Israelis place a high value on learning English.  Some volunteers whom you are serving with will also have some proficiency in Hebrew.  So between all of these skill sets, communications due to language gaps will not be an issue.  For those of you hoping to practice your Hebrew, you will find that as soon as you address an Israeli in Hebrew, he or she will try to accommodate you in English; first because they are trying to make your life easier, and second because they want to practice their English with a native English speaker.  Having shared all of that, I have actually used my time on the base practicing my German.  By chance, at least three of the volunteers in my group are primary German speakers (who also speak English) from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  I heard German around me as a child growing up in my family, and SAR-EL is the first time I have been able to sustain conversations completely in German for many years.  Lenka, a volunteer and physician from the Czech Republic was assigned to one of my first groups.  Although her English was passable, she struggled a bit with understanding instructions in rapid-fire English conversation.  She was, however, fluent in German, so those of us who were also German speakers frequently assisted her with on the fly translations. The bottom line is that communications will not be an issue to you when you do decide to volunteer.  By the way, if you are a Yiddish speaker and you happen to be stationed with HaRaydi soldiers, you’ll be golden!

 

No discussion of life in Israel would be complete without a mention of Yad VaShem, Israel’s holocaust memorial.  I visited there with my wife and friends during our trip in 2010.  Everyone’s experience at the memorial is personal and different depending on one’s relationship to the holocaust.  My parents were survivors of Auschwitz and Westerbork and were members of the Cologne (Germany) and Amsterdam (Holland) Jewish communities.  My wife’s parents’ roots were in Russian Minsk in the old “pale of settlements” where their ancestors suffered in the pogroms but escaped the holocaust.  Describing the exhibits in Yad VaShem is not really productive since you must experience the site yourself to truly understand and appreciate it.  The outdoor portion of the exhibit consists of sculpted, engraved square boulders listing the names of the Jewish communities which were devastated during World War II.  Many visitors spend their time looking for the names of the communities which were home to their ancestors—that’s what we did.  I would recommend dedicating at least one full day to thoughtfully tour Yad VaShem.  After you leave the museum, you might want to spend the rest of the day in reflection and thought.  It will be difficult to concentrate on much else after you have seen the exhibits.

 

 

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