Sar-El in the Time of Corona: Reporting from Israel

It has been five months since any group of international volunteers has stepped onto an IDF military base here in Israel. Looking ahead, the IDF has now officially cancelled volunteers for August and September as well, and we are still not sure when normal Sar-El activity in support of the IDF will resume.

There is no question that the absence of volunteers has been felt on bases throughout the country. Normally, the summer is a peak time for groups of volunteers to visit Israel and Sar-El is really feeling their absence. There is plenty of work and backlogged projects waiting to be undertaken upon our return.

As a veteran volunteer and now retiree living in Israel, I have been privileged to be able to offer help to the Sar-El team in an administrative capacity over the last couple of years. This is in addition to continuing as a regular base volunteer where I have been fortunate to have worked on a variety of army bases, large and small, as well as having been assigned to naval and air force bases.

In recent conversations with a number of my friends who are Sar-El veteran volunteers, from here in Israel as well as back in the U.S., I’ve come to appreciate how very much we are all missing this important and meaningful part of our lives.

It has made me think a lot about my early Sar-El experiences and about the first time I had the good fortune to have met General Aharon Davidi (z’’l), a former commander of the paratroops and the beloved founder and visionary of Sar-El.  It was his idea to provide volunteer laborers to replace army reservists called up during Operation Peace For Galilee in 1982. Its success led to the formal creation of Sar-El by the following year. Back in the early years, Sar-El volunteers helped on more than just IDF bases. We also were assigned to hospitals and kibbutzim. My first Sar-El in 1987 was actually a one-month assignment as an agricultural worker on Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee, filling in for a member called up for emergency reservist duty.

The program hiatus that we are in right now has provided an opportunity for all of us to look back over the past 38 years of Sar-El’s service to the State of Israel. I’m sure we are all amazed by its evolution and dramatic growth, now welcoming volunteers from 30 countries to assist our soldiers in so many different ways. It is reported that more than 250,000 men and women have provided logistical support, a number that includes a healthy mix of Jews and righteous gentiles. During these difficult days of medical crisis, growing global antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the ongoing connectivity with the volunteers reminds us yet again that the Jewish People are truly not alone. We Israelis must always remember that we have incredibly committed friends and supporters around the world who are very willing to use their financial resources and precious vacation time to physically come and help us, many of them coming year after year.

Many have asked what the focus of Sar-El and its loyal volunteers should be over the coming months as we hopefully will move back towards normalized operations. The senior staff is working now towards strengthening its internal operating capabilities, addressing improvements in its database and other systems and protocols. It’s the perfect time to work on this while maintaining strong contact with our representatives around the world. But it’s also a time for all of us to stay in touch and strengthen each other as we try to think of more ways to spread the word about this fantastic volunteer program that means so much to all of us.

Much of my time over the last two years as an administrative volunteer has been involved in helping organize olim from North America to participate in Sar-El. There have been several hundred Sar-El volunteers who have completed the aliyah process and continue to volunteer. But in truth, not nearly enough olim know about this program and I believe more needs to be done in getting the word out to them.

In speaking to many olim over the years about Sar-El, I’ve noted that once acclimated and working, there are many who have expressed a desire to find a way to contribute and give back to our country.  With so many coming from abroad showing incredible dedication to, and love of Israel, how could we, as Israeli citizens, do any less? By working on an army base, olim are offered a unique opportunity to deepen their knowledge of an important component of Israeli life, raising the morale of the soldiers with whom they will work, and at the same time make a meaningful contribution to their new homeland.

During the course of the Corona pandemic, a very small number of olim have actually made it onto an IDF base to help out Sar-El. They have come as day workers, commuting daily in and out of a limited number of bases for a couple of days per week. Because of the inbound flight restrictions and quarantining rules, the only other volunteers this summer have been a group of young adults who had already been in-country for a special long-term program that began months before the virus hit Israel. The IDF continues to continually review the situation and is being quite careful as to what type of activity will be permitted on its bases. The safety of the soldiers, and volunteers who would be involved with them, remains the highest priority.

In the meantime, let us all hope and pray that we move past this global medical crisis soon and can resume participation in this extraordinary volunteer program that we all enjoy so much. Stay healthy and stay strong!!!

Article writer: Howie Mischel     
August 1, 2020