Ever heard of Sar-El? This time last year I hadn’t, but [when I gave] an airport lift to a Canadian friend of mine, [he] put me right. He told me that he was off to Israel to join a Sar-El group and that I should go and find about it myself.
So a look at www.sar-el.org soon put me right. Assuming that you haven’t stopped reading this to look at the site yourself, Sar-El is a civilian programme for men and women of different ages and faiths, to help the Israel Defence Force (IDF) maintain its effectiveness. Sar-El volunteers live and work on army bases, doing essential work for the IDF, freeing young soldiers for their core duties.
Fast forward to late August, when after applying to join the program and being accepted, [I was] dropped at Heathrow to fly out to join my group. I was somewhat apprehensive; after all I didn’t know where I would be going and with whom I was going to meet up. However, I had been well briefed by the UK coordinator so I was otherwise well prepared. On landing at Ben Gurion I met up with others in my group – one Italian, one Canadian and three Americans – and were soon taken to our army base where we met up with the rest of our group who had arrived earlier. In all, our 22-strong group included Australians and a South African, as well as the aforementioned nationalities, leaving me as the sole British representative.
There were three married couples and our ages ranged from 18 to over 80. There were two madrichim: young soldiers who were assigned to look after us, Shana and Asaf, [they were] both Americans. Our adequate, but basic sleeping accommodation was in small dormitory rooms, each holding six people, but there were just two of us in mine, me and Roberto from Turin.
The base we were on was a medical supply facility preparing equipment for all wings of the IDF, where volunteers undertake 60% of the work. We were issued with army uniforms, which we wore when we worked, and which came on a “few sizes fit all” basis! Although we were split into small teams, I was assigned to work on my own with Noam, a young ex-IDF, now civilian, manager. We had a small warehouse and I spent most of my time meticulously packing, unpacking and sorting a variety of medical supplies and kits to be used, or held in preparedness on the front line, or wherever in the world disaster strikes and the IDF steps in to help.
I was amazed at the variety and complexity of the kits on which I was working and am in awe of the medical professionals that are called on to use them, often in the most deeply trying of circumstances. All the returning packs had to be opened and the dates checked on all the individual items for their expiry. At first the amounts we appeared to be throwing away concerned me, although I later found out that some are used in training. Subsequently it dawned on me that the fact they were being returned meant that they didn’t have to be used, and I sincerely hope that the new packs I helped put together similarly come back unused in two years time.
Our days started at 7:15 with breakfast, then a briefing with our madrichim at 8:00, when we got the days news from Israel, currency exchange rates and the days high and low temperatures. The briefing was supposed to be accompanied by flag raising, but the flag was stuck on top of the flagpole and wasn’t lowered all the time we were there!
We then worked until lunch at 11:45, resuming at 1:00 until around 4:30. Supper was at 5:45, after which we gathered at 6:45 for a group evening session with our madrichim. Breakfast and supper were quite often indistinguishable, while lunch was the main substantial meal of the day. The meals were taken with the soldiers in a large mess hall and I have to say I found the food on offer more than acceptable.
Evening activities were centered on Israel-based information, including a talk from a representative from the Central Bureau of Statistics, and an entertaining evening spent guessing which inventions came from Israel and which from the rest of the world. We also watched a film “Beneath the Helmet” about the training of a group of paratroopers. After the briefings we usually walked around our part of this very large base or sat and talked in our small compound. There was a clubroom with TV, but the temperature inside was at sauna levels, so only the brave stayed for any length of time.
Our first working week ended after lunch on Thursday, after which we were free until midday on the Sunday. I opted to stay for the weekend at Bet Oded, the Sar-El/IDF hostel in Jaffa, which proved a good choice, as it was very centrally located. Others stayed in hotels, some of which gave us discounts, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or further afield. Bet Oded comprised similar small dormitory accommodation, with all meals included.
Other Sar-El groups from across Israel were also staying there and at breakfast on the first day there were eight of us at our table, representing six nationalities. (As an aside, the USA sends the most volunteers, followed by France). On Sunday we regrouped in the morning at Arlozorov Station and were then taken to the Palmach Museum, which I can thoroughly recommend if you’ve never been. The story about the earliest days of the IDF is told in a really unique way and with no little intensity. After lunch it was back to the base and back to work.
The rest of the week continued in the same way, save that on the Tuesday we awoke in a dust cloud that apparently covered the whole region, and our previous very hot days were replaced by hot and very humid days. On the Wednesday we paused our efforts mid-afternoon and went to a meeting with all the soldiers and the base commander. He addressed the troops on the meaning and lesson of Rosh Hashanah, after which there was apples, honey, grape juice, honey cake, crackers, sweets enjoyed by all. Most impressive and touching. The base commander later thanked us separately and told us we were doing G-d’s work. We finished working mid-morning on the second Thursday, when we handed back our uniforms, cleaned our living accommodation and boarded our coach back to Tel Aviv, where we went our separate ways.
At our final briefing session with our diligent madrichim we were asked for our thoughts. My response was that I hoped I made a difference, and that I was deeply impressed by all the young soldiers that I met, who were without exception welcoming, kind and respectful. My lasting memory was a hug of gratitude that I got from one young soldier, who could have simply thanked me or shaken my hand but instead chose a more emotive way. If circumstances ever changed, these fine young boys and girls could find themselves being pressed into action in defense of the State of Israel. A sobering thought. Finally, I worked with a good group of people, of all ages and all walks of life, and made real friendships that I know will endure.
My final point – now please go to www.sar-el.org, have a good read through and then say to yourself: “Why am I not doing that?” If any reader would like any more information then please feel free to contact me directly.