When I arrived in the early hours of the morning at Ben Gurion Airport, I was rather apprehensive but excited.
Two and half weeks later when I was back there waiting for my flight home, I felt so glad I had come, grateful for the wonderful experiences I’d had and, although sad to be leaving, hoped that I would be coming back to Sar-El in the future.
My name is Stuart, I’m from the UK and I want to tell you about my Sar-El experience in March/April this year.
I’d been interested in Israel for some time and my partner and I booked a trip to the country back in January 2016. We stayed in Tel Aviv and went on a couple of trips. I loved the Bauhaus architecture of the White City, floating in the Dead Sea, the blues of the Mediterranean at Rosh Hanikra, and the taste of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice in Carmel Market. Standing at Herzl’s grave was an honour. Although I have no religion, touching the ancient stones of the Western Wall was completely awe-inspiring, and I will never forget our visit to Yad Vashem.
Later that year, while my partner was visiting family in Australia, I decided to return to Israel. I had more time to explore Tel Aviv. I went to the wonderful Rubin Museum, Ben Gurion’s House and Independence Hall. I really fell in love with place.
So, back home in the UK, I said to myself I must return soon. I had become more and more passionate about Israel and its amazing people. I wanted to do something to show my support for a country that protects the rights of women, gay people, religious minorities and that stands as a bastion of freedom surrounded by hostile states and tyrannical regimes. In so many European countries, including unfortunately my own, Israel is so often denigrated and attacked when in fact it should be celebrated and protected as the Middle East’s only real democracy.
While I was looking for ways to support Israel, I came across the Sar-El website and got in touch with the UK administrator, the lovely Jennie Goldstone. She was very helpful and answered all my queries and so in early 2017 I submitted an application for a 2-week programme starting in March. I had to complete a few forms, get medical clearance from my doctor, references and suitable insurance. Jennie quickly came back to me with a positive answer. I was so pleased! The week before my departure, Jennie took me for coffee to answer any final questions and wish me good luck. It was really useful to allay any last minute worries and have a good chat to someone who has so much experience of Sar-El.
Before I knew it I was having a strong coffee at about six in the morning in the arrivals hall of Ben Gurion. Lots of other Sarelniks turned up, from many different countries. I was placed with an English-speaking group who would be heading to a base in the south. We were introduced to our madrichot and then got on our coach and underway.
It was a great ride watching the changing landscapes pass by. We eventually got to our base and made our way to our accommodation. It was basic as Jennie had warned me but it was clean and comfortable enough and there was hot running water so I was more than happy. I was to share a room with three other guys who all turned out to be absolutely great. We would have so many interesting chats over the coming weeks and I remember lots of laughter.
The rest of the day was taken up with unpacking, the allocation of uniforms, meeting the base commander, and getting to know each other and our madrichot. We had two lovely madrichot, Salome and Anna, who made us feel very welcome and were clearly passionate about what they were doing.
The next day and the rest of the work days on the base were pretty much as follows. After breakfast in the dining hall, we had our flag raising ceremony. I got better at HaTikva as the time went on. The madrichot gave us a card with the words, which helped. This was followed by one of the madricha telling us the news in Israel and internationally. Then, we went off to work. We worked in pairs or small groups.
Howard, one of my Canadian roommates, and I worked in a warehouse sorting large batteries. We had to test them to see whether they could be recharged or not. It involved quite a lot of lifting but it was certainly good exercise. Chaim, the man in charge of us, was ace. He didn’t have much English and we had hardly any Hebrew but we managed to get by. In fact, ‘minus’, ‘plus’, ‘tov’ and ‘lo tov’ was the jist of it. Other times we sorted fire extinguishers for refurbishment or recycling, and even gave the floors a thorough mopping. It was a little dusty and dirty but I enjoyed the work and if felt like you really were contributing to the IDF, even if in a small way.
In the middle of the day we had a cooked lunch, some time to rest and then returned to work for a few more hours. We then had time to relax and freshen up before dinner. After our meal, we retired to our ‘club house’ which was a little wooden hut where we got together with our madrichot for evening activities. These were a chance to learn about varied subjects such as Israeli music, IDF heroes, the Hebrew language, and the history of the State. Some were fun and some were serious and I always learned something new.
At the weekends you go off base, which gives you a chance to go sightseeing, catch up with family and friends or simply relax. I spent the first weekend in Tel Aviv enjoying the relative luxury of a hotel near the beach. As I was on a two-week programme, the second weekend would mark the end of my first Sar-El experience.
Before our departure, we were thanked by the base commander for our work and had a certificate ceremony, which was really lovely. Later it was time to say goodbye and take the coach back to Tel Aviv. Before being taken to the train station, our madrichot had organised a visit to the Palmach Museum. It’s an innovative presentation of the military organisation and its role in the fight for Israel’s independence told through the experiences of a group of friends in the Palmach. It was a great way to finish.
After being dropped off at Tel Aviv Savidor Center and some farewells, I and four fellow Sarelniks took the train up to the capital. I would strongly recommend this to anyone. As the train snakes through the hills, you see the most beautiful landscapes of orange groves, rocky terraces and wooded slopes. At the end of the line in Jerusalem we needed to catch a bus to the centre. Thankfully, Syliva – a super-experienced Sarelnik and former resident of the city – knew the number and the route and got us to the centre of town.
I checked into my hotel, freshened up, had dinner and then headed to the Old City on the tram. That evening I spent an hour or two people-watching at the Western Wall beginning to process all the memories I had made. In Jerusalem, over the next few days, I made some more great memories. I visited the Knesset, the Israel Museum and the Western Wall Tunnels and even got caught up in the Palm Sunday celebrations in the Christian Quarter.
Some memorable moments from my time on the base include the time when I was given the honour of raising the flag at the morning ceremony. That really was a privilege. Also, my other Canadian roommate Bernie took me to morning prayers at the little synagogue on the base. It was a special experience and I was so grateful to him for inviting me to my first Jewish service. Then there was cleaning our accommodation to make sure we removed all the chametz for Pesach – thankfully we passed the inspection first time!
Another thing that sticks in my mind is the inclusivity of the IDF. I spent some time working in a different warehouse cleaning and packing tools. Two young men with Down’s syndrome were working there who were fully part of the team and treated with love and respect. It was beautiful to see that the IDF gives everyone in society the opportunity to contribute.
I think overall the Sar-El experience really is about the people. In my short time, I was lucky to meet so many different and amazing individuals: the other volunteers with whom I worked, ate, talked and laughed and from whom I learned so much; the soldiers and workers on the base who welcomed us warmly and helped me understand more about Israel; the kitchen staff who fed us every day with tasty kosher food; and of course the madrichot, who worked hard to make the Sar-El experience the best it could be.
To finish, I would recommend Sar-El to anyone who would like to support Israel and the IDF. It is a great chance to see the country from a new angle and do things you’d never normally do. You will learn a lot as well as meet fantastic people. Everyone is so friendly and as a non-Jew and as a gay man I was never made to feel anything but completely welcome. This was my first time and I hope there will be more to follow in the coming years. Finally, here are a few tips:
Always have a bottle of water with you if you are anywhere that is hot.
Take a spoon or be prepared to master the art of eating yoghurt with a fork.
Ask questions. I’m not Jewish and if you aren’t either, it is a great opportunity to learn about the religion, culture and history from the people around you.
Go with the flow. Not everything will always run perfectly but just take whatever comes your way, be patient, enjoy it and try to keep a smile on your face.