When the first Lebanon war broke out in 1982, reservists from the north of Israel were called up. As a result, the shortage of manpower on farms became a problem. General Aharon Davidi, former head of the IDF Paratroopers and Infantry Corps,decided to send Israeli emissaries to the US to recruit volunteers. It was an immediate success and 650 volunteers arrived in Israel. In 1983 Sar-El was born; the name is the Hebrew acronym for Service for Israel. The organization has grown from strength to strength and today around 4000 volunteers a year come to help the Israeli Army with civilian duties. There are also youth programs organized during the summer holidays.
Volunteers come from all four corners of the world: people of all ages, secular and religious, Jews and Christians from every conceivable background. All are committed to doing their share for the Israeli army on a one, two or three week program. Probably their biggest contribution is the moral support they give to the young soldiers who very much appreciate their presence on camp. Often they ask volunteers the question: “We have to do this, but you?” The answer is that many Jews in the Diaspora feel the need to help support Israel in defending their Jewish homeland.
I always had a soft spot for the young Israelis who, immediately after finishing their school education, were called upon to serve their country. Volunteering to help the IDF was what I wanted to do and I first joined Sar-El in 2002. My doctor had no problem confirming that I was physically fit but had to be convinced that joining Sar-El at my age was not a sign a mental disorder. After my security status was approved, I joined my group in Israel at a designated meeting point. I spoke to new apprehensive ‘recruits’ and to some returning Sarelnicks and thought that it was a good sign if people kept coming back.
We were soon divided into groups and sent to our respective bases. Some camps have better facilities than others but one cannot pick and choose because ‘you are in the army now!’ Every group is escorted by soldiers, madrichim, who are in charge of the volunteers for the duration of the program. After boarding our coach and a short introduction, we were read the Army Rules. The first four rules are the most important ones: No alcohol. No drugs. No proselytising. Boys and girls sleep in separate quarters.
Patience and a well-developed sense of humor are a must! On the base, we were shown to our barracks which usually sleep 4 to 6. We could choose any of the 2’ 6” wide beds with a 2 ½ inch thick mattress. Oy vey! But who cares, you only sleep there anyway. No time for unpacking as we are rushed off to get our uniforms – the highlight of the day. Uniforms are laundered but not ironed and they come in four sizes only - too short, too long, too big and too small. Back at the barracks, we slip on our uniform and hope it will fit. Finally, we put on our adjustable belt and secure our cap under the epaulette. Suddenly, a change of mood comes over us, we stand upright and proud, our laughs are fading and emotions take over – we now really feel part of the country
The main meal is ‘served’ lunchtime, food is plentiful and reasonably tasty, with the compulsory tomato chunks, cucumber slices, humus or tehina and a variety of salads. When at morning or evening mealtime, yogurt is on the menu and no spoons are available, don’t fuss about it. I took advice from a clever young soldier who told me: “don’t struggle with a fork, just drink your yogurt”. Also remember to clear up after yourself, it’s every man for himself.
The work varies from folding uniforms to checking gas masks, from painting to sorting out medical supplies, depending on what is needed at the time. The work can sometimes be repetitive and boring but it needs to be done. The more demanding physical jobs are usually given to strapping young men.
We were to remain on the base all week and there would be no wandering out on shopping expeditions. Back at the barracks, unpacking is quick as there is very little storage space. I found my padlock, enabling me to lock away my valuables when the cleaners would come to do the room – I soon discovered we were the cleaners.
The next morning, we joined the regular soldiers on the parade ground. We stood at ease, then to attention, then at ease again and I was honored with raising the flag. I was overwhelmed. I could hear my heart beat as I ran up the flag. Tears rolled down my cheeks when we sang the HaTikvah while I stood to attention next to our flag.
On another base, the project for our group of ten was to paint certain areas and re-arrange the plants to produce an instant manicured garden ready for the welcome reception for the new base commander. It worked like a military operation! The next day, the officer in charge called us together around a table bedecked with drinks, biscuits and fruit. He thanked us profusely in Hebrew and finished with “Atem tsevet min haShamaim”, “You are a team from Heaven”.
When my friend Renata heard that the volunteers had to share one nearly bald broom, she immediately donated her brand new one to the IDF. As I returned to base, carrying the broom on my shoulder as one would carry a rifle, an appropriate Yiddish saying came to mind: “Az Gott vill, schiest a Beizim!”, “If God wills it, even a broom can shoot!”
Each time spent at Sar-El is a different ‘adventure’, has a different ‘flavor’ and awakens different emotions, but the ‘good-feeling’ for the Neshama, the soul, the camaraderie and the good humor never change.
Today I am a seasoned volunteer and my yearly stint at Sar-El is a privilege. The apprehension of the unknown is replaced by far more important thoughts, such as, will the kitbags we are filling or the medicines we are packing, be used on active duty? We, Sar-El volunteers support the IDF because WE ARE PART OF “AM ISRAEL”.