I can’t decide on my most bizarre experience of the last week – was it the heater where the red “off” button turned it on and the green “on” button turned it off? – was it the bird that flew over my head during dinner? – was it the soldier who told me to clean 320 chairs with no soap? – was it the omelettes for breakfast and dinner for five days in a row? I couldn’t possibly decide.
My last week was spent on a combat army base in the south, volunteering with Sar-El. I was with 10 other people, ranging in age from 32 to an age I wouldn’t like to guess! We were helping out the soldiers, cleaning around the base and packing kit bags.
Upon arrival we were given our uniforms (three size options: too big; too small; not quite right) and set straight to work in the warehouse. All the kit sent out during Operation Pillar of Defensehad been returned in disarray and needed to be repacked. It was here that I made my first mistake. It transpires that the army is not the ideal ground for the fight of sexual equality and when someone asks for a strong volunteer, they probably don’t mean you, if you are (like me) a weak and fairly unfit 21 year old girl. Maybe when the man in charge of us said “No, not you,” I should have stepped down, but in the moment I was a pioneer for female equality and so I spent the afternoon moving bags that were half my height and well over half my weight! When I was told I was golden as my name I felt a glow inside.
Unfortunately this was not to last as on Day Two I found myself on kitchen duty (more on that later). That evening, when all the volunteers sat down to get to know each other, one English volunteer, when asked why he did Sar-El, replied that it was cheaper than Weightwatchers! I laughed. How little did I know…
Night One was an early night but unfortunately not a quiet one. A gale howled outside and the loosely fixed metal barriers rattled as if to signal the end of the world. Yet morning came (albeit morning without electricity) and with it, omelettes for breakfast. Both dining rooms on the base needed floors, tables and chairs cleaning. Washing up had to be done and vegetables needed to be peeled and chopped (לקלף= to peel). I found myself getting highly frustrated with my lack of ability to communicate with people around me, so I was very surprised when we found common ground in David Guetta, and spent the afternoon chopping vegetables to his dulcet tones!
Halfway through the afternoon a soldier I’d met once came running into the kitchen and garbled a string of Hebrew at me. I caught “Sheshbesh” at the end and realized he was asking if I knew how to play. On learning that I did, he dragged me away from work to play two games (final score 1-1), and then I returned to chopping vegetables. Only in Israel! After a long day, Night Two was eagerly welcomed, and thanks to the DIY efforts of our madricha, it was slightly quieter.
Day Three began with flag-raising, where I was given the honour of being the Sar-El representative. It meant a lot to be raising the Israeli flag and all my Zionist passions flooded to the surface. We watched the soldiers being berated by their drill sergeant (the Israeli army may be the best in the world but they seem to have difficulty marching in time!), before being presented with our shoulder tags. With these attached to my uniform I could pretend to myself I was virtually indistinguishable from a ‘real’ soldier!
The rain on Day Three was unceasing (very biblical) and the warehouse was unheated and virtually unlit. The only way to stay warm was to keep busy packing bags. I found myself again very frustrated because no-one seemed to know exactly what was meant to be happening, and we’d finish a job only to be told it needed to be redone differently.
Days Four and Five were a lot more settled – we had a routine of omelette, kit bags, lunch, kit bags, omelette, activity, bed. On the afternoon of Day Four we packed over 120 kit bags, stacked them up and used them as a climbing frame! By the time it came to leave on Day Five, I was ready to go – I felt like I would never be warm again! One of the most striking things about Sar-el is how it brings people together of all ages and from all walks of life. I found myself having a permanent-marker fight with one volunteer, being taught to crochet by another, and being told to join the army by another! Despite our differences we managed to come together to achieve some brilliant work. I’m proud I forced myself out of my comfort zone and lived to tell the tale!
Around 50% of Sar-el volunteers are repeaters. On Day One I swore I wouldn’t be one of them, but now looking back over all I achieved, I have to admit… I may just end up coming back.