EXPERIENCE ISRAEL A DIFFERENT WAY
Like many American Jews, Israel was an important – if quiet – part of my childhood. I learned about the Jewish State in Hebrew school, handed over my nickels and dimes to the Jewish National Fund to buy trees to replenish its forests, attended youth conventions where we sang about “David, the King of Israel” and learned to dance the hora.
During my college years, I even worked on the staff of a summer camp in Western North Carolina, Camp Judea, funded by Hadassah and the Zionist Organization of America. Then I blinked, and life happened.
Three decades later, I was working as a newspaper editor in Atlanta when I stumbled across a website that detailed a program, Sar-El, which had been created to enlist the help of volunteers to work on IDF bases in Israel; I was intrigued.
Over the next decade, whenever I had a free moment between editing stories and attending news meetings, I would return to the website. Everything about the program seemed exciting – it was in a distant, ancient land that was part of my heritage; it involved work that was, well, menial, but important; and it was a concrete way to help Israel when often it seemed politics and world opinion had turned its back on the Jewish homeland.
And heck, you got to wear a uniform. How cool is that?
The program became a secret fantasy, the place where I could go when work and life became too frenzied and frantic. And then a strange thing happened: The economy soured and work and life really did become too much, and after accepting a buy-out from my struggling company, Sar-El no longer seemed a dream. It became real, something I could do to escape the tumbling economy and the litany of woes that filled the news.
The time had come to reconnect with that special place that had become part of my life as a child, and that’s exactly what I did.
That first adventure began with a 12-hour flight that left me weary and sore and in search of my Sar-El guide at Ben Gurion International Airport. I was traveling with Bill, a friend and a former colleague; we had both worked for the daily paper in Atlanta for nearly three decades, and he, too, was looking for some relief from the stress of daily life and a little adventure on an Israeli army base.
What Bill and I initially found at Tel Hashomer was a tiny but tidy volunteer compound in one corner of the massive installation. At first glance, it had the look of a struggling summer camp – sun-bleached huts surrounding a courtyard that was a bit frayed around the edges.
No matter; I had found my home for the next three weeks, and everything I needed was at hand.
The IDF embraces routine, and Sar-El embraces the IDF. Our mornings began with breakfast – eggs, yogurt, salad, bread, jam, coffee, tea and, when we were lucky, chocolate milk – followed by flag-raising, news of the day and announcements and then work.
On our first day, Bill and I were introduced to our daily duties when we found our way back to the warehouse area and met our boss, Barack – a tall, smiling guy with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair spilling about his face. A few other volunteers – Maayan and Roxanne from the U.S. and Barbara from New Zealand – were already at work, sorting through cardboard boxes of medical supplies.
Bill and I were soon dipping into similar boxes filled with some sort of IV device (I never did figure out exactly what the equipment was used for in the field). Our job was to check the expiration date on the clear, plastic bags holding the devices, then check that the bags had not been compromised.
Two hours and several hundred bags later and it was time for lunch: hummus, and other similar spreads; salads, vegetables, rice or pasta; and some sort of beef, chicken or veggie surprise. Three hours and several hundred bags more in the afternoon, and it was time for dinner more hummus, more salads, more pasta.
Add a few hours of free time around lunch and dinner and a special program each evening, multiply by three weeks and subtract the weekends – in my case, long weekends that included Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and you begin to have a sense of the ebb and flow of base life for volunteers.
The numbers, however, don’t capture the heart of the program, which is the volunteers and their stories. For most, Israel wasn’t just a tourist destination or a break from the routine; for some, the journey was a calling, a mission of heavenly import, and others were driven by less cosmic considerations.
“I was trying to impress a girl,” a young guy from Florida said, explaining why he was in Israel.
This surprising admission was offered up during an evening program exploring why we were serving as volunteers; others talked about their love of Israel, a need to offer support or a desire to step outside the tourist bubble and interact directly with Israelis.
I mumbled something about the economy, being semi-retired and having the time to give. And then I shared a story about a previous trip to Israel and visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s world-class Holocaust museum.
Moments after walking through the children’s memorial there, a profoundly moving experience that recalls that 1.5 million youngsters murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, I stumbled onto a group of soldiers. They had just exited the memorial also.
Inexplicably, they were joking around, laughing and chatting. At that instant, I found myself getting angry, but after a moment’s reflection, it seemed to me that there was something redemptive about the scene and the young soldiers’ behavior.
In a fashion I still find difficult to articulate, the young Israelis seemed a part of a chain, one additional link that includes the heartbreak of the Holocaust and establishment of the State of Israel, ancient wars and prophesies, the patriarchs and cosmic promises.
The laughing soldiers, at least on this day, were the Jewish people’s victory and future, and I realized I felt comfort in their presence.
Sar-El, I told the group at Tel Hashomer, was my way of saying thanks. I’ve realized recently it was also my way of becoming an active part of the chain once again, linking me with a land, a people and beliefs that stretch back thousands of years.
Editor’s note: Ron Feinberg is a veteran journalist who has worked for daily newspapers across the Southeastern United States. He most recently worked for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and now specializes on topics of Jewish interest; firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ron Feinberg
For the Atlanta Jewish Times