I am on the final leg of my journey to Israel. While I have been to Israel, many times this will be my first trip going solo. What am I doing? I am volunteering in a program called Sar-El or, what is called in America, Volunteers for Israel.
I will be stationed on an army base, I don’t know where, together with other volunteers from around the world, Jew and non-Jew. This program started about 35 years ago during the first Lebanese war. At that time, the call up of soldiers left many aspects of military and civilian life unattended. A call went out to volunteers, and they came to gather the harvest and maintain various military non-combat functions. Today, volunteers perform a myriad of functions from medical resupply to electronic refurbishing to painting barracks to clearing brush. I am not sure about peeling potatoes… Volunteers live in barracks, eat (and mingle) in the mess hall with the IDF soldiers, and attend evening programs to learn about what is going on and mingle with other volunteers. We receive military clothing (saves on packing). Sar-El emphasizes we are not IDF! We undergo no military training and handle no weapons (Israel has one the most restrictive gun control laws in the world, unlike the US Wild West). We work from Sun. to Thurs. The weekends are free to explore or meet up with family and friends. While the program is 3 weeks long, not ever having done this before, I committed to 2 weeks. Why? Since I retired almost 2 years ago, I’ve been engaged in various volunteer functions in the Jewish community to being an AARP tax-aide (and some consulting-isn’t that what all retirees do!). Of course, I also serve on Amberley Village Council. I’ve always wanted to volunteer in Israel and never had the opportunity. The Sar-El mission is quite intriguing. This program gives this Jew an opportunity to pay back and say toda raba for all that Israel provides to World Jewry. Of course, there are other ways to say thank you, like donating a wing at Hadassah Hospital (!!) or the Israel Museum (!!) or touring and spending money (!!) or learning and spending money(!!). Sar-El is different. It’s saying thank you to those who defend us. The last time Nan and I traveled to Israel, we had the special opportunity to volunteer at the ‘Lone Soldier Center of Michael Levin’. These social centers (4 scattered in Israel) cater to the lone soldier or Jews who have made aliyah and have no ‘official’ family in Israel (although aren’t we all mishpocha?) or soldiers who have been abandoned by their haredi Israeli families. It is a place to meet and socialize with others coming from a similar background, obtain guidance counseling for post-army jobs and living arrangements, to communally celebrate former national holidays, and sometimes finding their bashert (match). We bought/brought all kinds of snack foods to distribute and in fact met a former Cincinnatian! During the last Gaza War Israelis became keenly aware of these individuals. While the lone soldier thought he/she was alone, there was an outpouring of pure love when tens of thousands of Israelis attended the military funeral of lone soldiers. We are all mishpocha…
I am in the Lufthansa waiting area in the Frankfurt airport waiting to board my flight. There is a call for mincha (or as Sephardim around me said, ‘minha’). We are a Jewish conglomerate of haredi, yeshiva bochers, and dati, frankly not having much in common other than sharing a mission to jointly praise and give thanks to the Almighty.
One immediate perk on arriving to Israel last night. Having shared I was with Sar-El, the sim card company (Froride) went out of its way help me and the Ruth Daniel Residence upgraded my room!
Shabbat Shalom and Good Chodesh!
Part 2 – Arrival and Day 1: Somewhere in Central Israel
After arriving at our rendezvous point at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday, I finally learned where I would be stationed. It would be the medical supply/resupply base for Israel (and world rescue operations). I am part of a Canadian (mostly Montreal) delegation, all of whom have been coming to Sar-El and this particular base, for several years. Our accommodation, according to these veterans are princely. I share an air-conditioned room with one person (one of the ‘other’ Americans) and we have showers and bathrooms down the hall (instead of somewhere outside). Women occupy the 2nd floor while men are on the 1st floor. Our madrichot (2 female soldiers) are doing their national service by supervising and having responsibility for our well being. One is a lone soldier from California and the other made aliyah with her family from Scotland. The tiny area that we occupy on the base includes our dorm, warehouses for work, a dining hall, and a small synagogue. We pick up our uniforms from a bin. With no sizes on uniforms we haphazardly select clothes that ‘look’ like they will fit and hopefully not look a clown! I luck out and find a shirt and pants tailor made for me!
The morning begins with going to the synagogue at 6:45. No minyan here as most workers on the base commute (there is supposed to be an afternoon minyan). Breakfast is at 7:15. Wearing our uniform is mandatory during the day. The group activity starts with flag raising at 8:00. We are trained to stand at attention and at ease, one of us is selected to raise the flag and we sing the Hatikvah. [Then] it’s off to our work assignments. Everyone has a different assignment associated with medical resupply. Since I am the youngest in our group, I am asked to work with B and N, who handles the initial returns. With S I handle the more heavy items, arrange pallets of supplies . B speaks some English and N does not. While B is soft spoken, N is loud (and often gives incorrect instructions!) There are cases and cases filled with an assortment of medical supplies, from various catheters to syringes to swabs to bandages, medicines, etc. Our task is to sort them out into other bins, sometimes by their expiration date. Pending the items’ expiration date, they find their way back into the field medical kits or demonstration kits for soldiers/trainees, or shipped to Gaza, or buried.
The field kits are used at the front, military bases, and search and rescue missions (e.g., Mexico, Japan, Greece, etc.), and ‘secret field hospitals along the Israeli-Syrian border. We’re told that this entire operation is essentially performed by Sar-El volunteers. My work is not easy. Some of these supply cases can be heavy and the work can be dirty. While the warehouse is comfortable in the morning the afternoons turn warm and sweaty. We generally quit at 11:30 for lunch at noon. Lunch is the main meal of the day. We return to work at 1pm and the day ends at about 3:30-4pm. Dinner is at 6pm. An evening program led by the madrichot is at 7pm.
During this first week we learn about the military, its various functional units (air force, tank, paratroopers, combat, police, undercover, intelligence, ‘seals’, and quartermaster, etc.), rankings, years of service, and the life of a lone soldier. The day ends with dorm work assignments, i.e., cleaning floors, bathrooms, shower areas, and cleaning common areas. We are in the army! By the end of the week, the World Series is on. Some get up at 3 am to watch. The 2nd game ends at 7:30 am!
Day 2: We discover that some of our work has been undone by one of the regular workers. We had separated alcohol swabs according to whether they were packaged into packets or singles. Thousands of them. And today we find them re-mixed! We get a request to identify certain catheters by their expiration date.
Being the outsider, we naturally play the great pastime of Jewish geography. I meet a cousin of Rabbi Max Newman (former rabbi of Roselawn Synagogue), a grandmother whose grandson is planning to marry a Cincinnati girl (Paul family) who made aliyah. It’s always a small Jewish world. Having been to Montreal several times (Sarah went to McGil University) I am pretty familiar with the Jewish neighborhoods and some of the synagogues. In the evening many of Montrealers carry on in Yiddish. The demographics of our group is skewed considerably older than me. Most are in their 70s, several in their 80s, and two in their 90s! A few of us are in their 60s and we bring the mean age down! Politics is generally off limits, although watching CNN at night we can’t avoid Trump comments (pro and con).
Prior to arriving at the base and despite being careful what to pack and avoid packing (efficient packing is required to avoid schlepping all your things), I forgot 4 things; my laptop charger, a bath towel, soap, and some laundry detergent. I managed to purchase a charger at the Frankfurt airport, the owner of the apartment in Tsfat (where I stayed prior to my volunteer work) found a towel for me, and my roommate had a soap bar for me. I am stuck w/o detergent. I’ll be left to hand washing and line drying.
Thursday work ends at noon. We have lunch and the bus takes us to various destinations in Tel Aviv. I had arranged a business meeting with one of my clients and later I meet my cousin, Ora Medalia, on Moshav Yarkona. Ora was my father’s niece from his first marriage, before the war. I ‘discovered’ Ora in 1999, about 13 years after my father died-another story…Whenever we get to Israel we try to see Ora and family. They are the sweetest. What used to be a region filled with citrus and olive groves is today filled with apartments. That’s what happens when a population grows from 1 million to over 8 million. Thursday, I have my 1st solid sleep in days (my roommate can make ‘noise’ during the night).
Friday-Sunday I’ll be spending in Tel Aviv. I’ve been recommended to go to the International Synagogue, the hot ‘Jewish’ spot in Tel Aviv. There will be a Carlebach Kaballat Shabbat, and a generous Kiddush on Saturday!
Sar-El Part 3
Shabbat in Tel Aviv: I must admit I was reluctant to spend Shabbat in Tel Aviv. The last time I did this, attending the cavernous and empty ‘Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, located in a slummy run down section of Tel Aviv, was somewhat depressing and disappointing. But to my Great Surprise, the Intl Synagogue of Tel Aviv was anything but depressing. Located on Frishman off Ben Yehuda, in the heart of Tel Aviv, Kabbalat Shabbat services was SRO, filled with around 500 people from all walks of life. The Carlebach service was bouncing full of ruach. This Shabbat featured a guest Breslov chasid chazzan, Nachman Troitman, all the way from Tzfat. An incredible tenor who wove themes from Puccini, Les Miz, and Phantom. Shabbat morning was similarly full, but not SRO. The nusach is Sephardic North Africa, although the Rabbi is an Ashkenaz American born YU grad (Ariel Konstantyn). The makeup of the congregation is a mix of French and American olim, Israelis, and tourists. During shacharit I thought I recognized a person sitting in front of me, but I couldn’t place him. After the service I introduced myself, coming from Ohio, and asked if we might have crossed paths. It turns out Nan and I attended his son’s wedding in Columbus this past summer (we are good friends of the bride’s parents!)! He was also on Sar-El at a different base. Small world…For the evening we were entertained with the shul’s free concert featuring the Gat Brothers, Breslov chasidim who play American rock music! Somehow chasidim with payot down to their shoulders singing the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Ventures, etc., was a bit incongruous, talented nonetheless.
For my 2nd week with Sar-El, I switched work assignments. This week I am emptying and packing out medical supplies to the numerous army bases and potential disaster sites around the globe. We are about 10 volunteers supervised by our manager Moshiach (that’s really his first name!). Last week can be viewed as a vacation compared to this week. I am lifting and moving 25+lb boxes, sorting medical supplies of saline, various bandages, tourniquets, catheters, meds, headlamps, etc., for eventual repacking into wooden caskets or cases which when complete are carried to pallets for eventual truck transport to bases. It’s an assembly line operation. Starting at 8am, by the end of the work day, generally at 3:30-4p, I am tired. Each of us recognizes the value of the work.
This week we manage to secure a mincha minyan right after lunch. There are enough soldiers and civilian employees to enable this. Moshiach is there (of course…) as well as last week’s supervisor, Barak, and a few soldiers. Leading the services is the Lt. Colonel of the base! The Bet Knesset, located between our dorm and the cafeteria, is stocked with prayer books (all Sephard), a bimah, and a Torah ark. Speaking of the cafeteria, the food has been surprisingly good. Breakfast and dinner is dairy and pretty simple. It can consist of cottage cheese, sour cream, chopped peppers/tomatoes, blintzes, tuna, yogurt, and eggs (not all at the same meal). The main meal is lunch. There is typically a choice of 3 main dishes (red meat, chicken, and vegetarian), various soups, loads of salads, and side dishes (noodles, rice, green beans, eggplant, etc.). One will not starve.
I cannot but admire most of the volunteers, veterans of 10+ years, and staying for 3 to 6 weeks a year. Living conditions on some Israeli bases can be quite primitive and the work far less glamorous than medical resupply (e.g., building fences, repairing vehicles, helmets, radiosets, etc.). A few made aliyah, but don’t permanently live in Israel (?) One volunteer shared that the advantages include obtaining Israeli health insurance and mass transit discounts! Some volunteer for several months and live in Canada and/or the US the rest of the year. In addition to giving their time and sweat, some are extremely generous with their money, creating college scholarships for poor Israeli soldiers, MDA ambulances, etc.. But, Sar-El is not about money (although it will be accepted!) It is about love for Israel and its people. Some Sar-El vets are pranksters who prey on the newbies. There is the story of one volunteer convincing a newbie that the DEET insect repellent spray in the warehouse (expired) was actually a deodorant. A few days later this newbie commented that it was the best deodorant he ever used!
On Wednesday I had the opportunity to lead flag raising and Hatikvah. The selected volunteer approaches the flagpole, raises and holds the flag until it is above the ground and to the top, and then salutes. You come to attention and lead everyone in the singing of the Hatikvah. A simple, emotional rush. The image going through my head was of a youth wishing his parents could see him… Earlier generations could only dream of being in Zion.