A unique and special trip was pulled together in early November by the Southeast Region of Volunteers for Israel. The organization handles logistics in the U.S. for Sar-El, an Israeli program that places volunteers from around the world on Israeli Defense Force bases.
This was our third-annual group trip, a mission that turned out to be particularly important after hostilities broke out between Hamas terrorists in Gaza and Israel. Our group included volunteers from across Metro Atlanta and eight Southeastern states. We also adopted a few additional volunteers from California, Ohio and Michigan.
We were placed on a massive base outside of Tel Aviv. After a fairly routine first week of packing medical supplies, things changed drastically. Here’s a brief journal of highlights, cobbled together from notes sent to family and friends, of the last 10 days of our mission:
Thursday, Nov. 15
Our base is under alert, but we are headed off for a weekend trip. Unfortunately, much of our plan has been changed, since we need to stay clear of areas under attack and the nearby coastline.
Instead we’ll spend time in the desert and visit the “Grand Canyon” of Israel outside of Mitzpeh Ramon. We managed to hike in Ein Avdot, visited Ben Gurion’s home, stayed overnight at the Bedouin Hospitality Center and even rode camels.
Sunday, Nov. 18
We made our way back to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. It was filled with troops, decked out in battle gear, making their way back to bases across Israel. We, too, were headed back to our installation for a final week of work.
Our group has grown to almost 50 volunteers, including Masa Israel students evacuated from the area around Gaza. On our way back to base, we stayed off the major highways, following a convoluted, circuitous route.
We made it back just in time for lunch – hummus, salads, lots of tomatoes and cucumbers. Then we attended a lecture that detailed what to do if air raid sirens began wailing. We got to use what we learned just a few hours later when the base’s siren went off around 7 o’clock that evening. We easily made it to the safe rooms – four nearby concrete cottages.
Monday, Nov. 19
Our medical supply base is very busy now. Most of the warehouses are staffed and open day and night. Soliders, tense and weary, are sleeping on chairs and tables.
They have good reason to be tired. Just in the last day, the IDF has managed to send 80 tons of supplies – food and medical equipment – to troops on the border with Gaza.
The reality of war is filtering into our area. We’ve just learned of Israel’s first casualty, an 18-year-old soldier who had just been in the army for five months.
Good news from home: Many volunteers are coming back to offer aid. One couple from Ft. Lauderdale just left Israel 10 days ago and are due back next week. They will be needed, especially if Israel follows through on plans to put troops on the ground in Gaza.
Meanwhile, several volunteers from Atlanta are extending their stay here for another week.
Wednesday, Nov. 21
So, exactly what’s keeping us busy these days? Our group has cleaned, counted, sorted and packed; inventoried and unpacked; sealed, schlepped, closed, opened, taped and repaired medical supplies and surgical instruments. We’ve also sterilized items, packed kits, backpacks, bags, boxes, vests and, of course, field boxes.
Some kits include full pharmacies – Kleenex, cough drops, needles, gloves, an assortment of basic medications, alcohol and blood pressure cuffs.
We’re really busy, but what we’re doing is really important.
By the way, when you hear about Israel arriving on the scene of disasters around the world, the supplies come from this base.
Thursday, Nov. 22
Happy Thanksgiving! Some of our group returned home yesterday to be with family for the holidays. The rest of us continue working, staying busy even today when we normally would have been off at noon.
Good news. The latest cease-fire seems to be holding.
Friday, Nov. 23
We’re out and about for Shabbat. Six of us had dinner in Rehovot at the home of one of my Israeli friends.
But work doesn’t end: We receive a call for volunteers to help out on Sunday at a food supply base in Haifa.
Sunday, Nov. 25
I’m back with a large group of volunteers – VFI workers, students and a large contingent of French speakers from Netanya. We’ve all extended for another week.
Our mission? We’re part of a huge assembly line: Two lines, handling over 400 boxes of food supplies each hour. Yikes!
Each volunteer has a special task. Up front, workers load the boxes with canned pineapple, tuna, corn, dry roasted peanuts, canned eggplant, pickles and halva.
Then a second group tapes the boxes. A third group places the sealed boxes into larger cartons and slaps on labels.
I’ll be remaining in Israel until late spring. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re interested in having “an adventure,” then consider joining me. Israel needs your help.
You’ll have fun, meet interesting people and return home feeling really good.
BY SHARON SLEEPER / Special for the Atlanta Jewish Times
For additional information about Volunteers for Israel, check our vfi-usa.org or the Sar-El website, sar-el.org.