Giving Back With Sar-El

As a Soviet refugee who came to the United States in the 1970s, I have always felt a deep sense of debt to Israel. In those days, the only legal way for Soviet Jews to flee the communist regime was for “family reunification.” Israeli activists provided the formal invitations from fictitious relatives in Israel, which paved our road to freedom.

In 2007, I started looking for volunteer opportunities in Israel as a way “to give back.” As an architect, I was hoping to find something related to my profession. On the Internet, I found some Israeli enthusiasts who were building a settlement in the Negev Desert. Unfortunately, we had a communication problem. Meanwhile, a friend recommended that I call Sar-El, an organization that provides volunteer opportunities with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I jumped at this chance, hoping to find my Negev contacts while in Israel. But things turned out quite differently. 

As soon as my application was approved, I bought a round trip ticket to Israel, and all other expenses-food, lodging, etc.-were covered by Sar-El. At Ben Gurion airport I was greeted by their representative and was assigned to a Navy base near Haifa. 

Twelve of us slept in a military barrack-a prefab cabin with six bunk beds. Another small structure containing toilets and showers was about 30 yards away. The next morning, after breakfast and a flag raising ceremony, we were given our task for the next two weeks: to clean and reassemble Israel Navy equipment, various parts of which lay around in disarray at the base; the second Lebanon war had ended just a few months before. 

We worked seven-hour work days and got three meals daily. After work, we had classes on Israeli history, geography, customs, and Hebrew. We also had the privilege of meeting General Aharon Davidi, who had founded Sar-El in 1982. Another emotional experience was a half-day excursion to the site of a British detention camp at Atlit, a coastal town south of Haifa. Tens of thousands of Jews-including thousands of Holocaust survivors-who had tried to settle in Palestine despite British restrictions, were imprisoned there between 1934 and 1948. 

On weekends we would leave the base and stay with relatives, friends, or at Beit Oded in Tel Aviv-a Sar-El hostel, which was a sort of room and board facility. 

I got hooked on Sar-El right away and have returned many times. As soon as I’m back home, I am already looking forward to my next volunteering trip. 

Contributing to a Jewish cause and the shared experience of volunteering provide a great sense of fulfillment, pride, and delight. Volunteers have the opportunity to make a tangible contribution to Israeli society. Just Sar-El alone saves Israel hundreds of thousands shekels annually. Sar-El also makes it possible for active duty Israelis to defend Israel in more meaningful ways than the support work we perform. 

One of my most memorable volunteering experiences was in March 2015. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I never got to have a bar mitzvah. The staff at the base set about organizing one for me. I became a bar mitzvah in the presence of my fellow volunteers. The Sar-El bar mitzvah has since become a tradition in itself, just like my annual Sar-El pilgrimage. 

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