Impressions From a First-Time Sar-Elnik

Why are you doing this? Pretty much everyone I talked to about Sar El asked that same question. It’s so dangerous, you’re not that religious, you were never in the service, and so forth. There were plenty of reasons to stay home.But even before Operation Protective Edge began this summer (2014), I felt, increasingly, that I had to do something more… well, more intimate than just sending a check to an Israeli charity from time to time.

So I filled out the forms, got my medical checkup, and booked a slot six months in the future. When the rockets started falling, nearly everyone who knew I was going asked “You’re cancelling, right?” But I thought that they would never need volunteers more than now. And I also thought that if Air Canada was willing to commit a $200 million airplane, I could fulfill my own commitment.

I’m very glad I did. My volunteer group consisted of thirteen people from five different countries, each with their own reasons for being there, but each with a common reason as well – a need to help this tiny country in whatever way they could. I’m sure that our presence had a benefit beyond the actual work performed, too; with Israel never more vilified in the international press, seeing people from so many different countries coming to volunteer must have been a significant morale boost for the ‘real’ soldiers.

And the work itself brought a reality to the conflict that merely watching the news never did. One  of my tasks involved cleaning and refurbishing field stretchers that, just a few days before, were transporting injured soldiers to safety. I did my best work, though I hope to G_d they never need to again be used.

In addition to the actual work performed, the camaraderie with the other volunteers was an important part of the experience. Eighty percent of the people in my group were repeat volunteers. Half of them had signed up after Protective Edge began; expecting that more volunteers would be needed. Of course, I’d be less than truthful if I said everyone got along perfectly all the time, but our common goal transcended any minor disagreements. One of the funniest things was one fellow, a six-time repeat volunteer, who spent most of the two weeks complaining and then filled out his evaluation form with “Everything was fine.”

 Our Madrichot were helpful, knowledgeable, appreciative and very easy to work with. The food was better than I expected. As for our dorm room, well, the cots could have been more comfortable, but I was pleasantly surprised by the air conditioning – call it a draw. Perhaps my biggest problem was that the inflatable pillow I brought sprung a leak – one that no amount of duct tape would fix.

All in all, I found my two weeks in Sar El to be rewarding, fulfilling, and mind-expanding. My only regret is that you can do it for the first time only once. I definitely expect to sign up again, but the sense of newness and wonder will be gone. Or perhaps it will be replaced by the confidence of knowing what I’m doing. We’ll see.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably saying “I’d really like to do this, but I’ve got family, a job, and so many other obligations. I just don’t have the time.”

Make the time.

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