Volunteering at an IDF base

Sar-El, December 2010

By Ralph Bernstein, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Ralph Bernstein (standing, far R), with a group of Sar-El volunteers

It all came about courtesy of my cousin in Montreal. He called and asked if I wanted to join him in Israel for a three-week tour of duty with Sar-El Volunteers for Israel.

Sar-El exists to promote Jewish continuity through cultural and educational exchanges. The program brings volunteers from around the world to Israel to work in Israel Defense Forces warehouses.

The volunteers stand in for Israelis who would otherwise be called into duty for said tasks. Not being able to top that, I agreed to sign up for the October trip.

Our group was mostly from Montreal; some were from Toronto. There was a gentile chap from Calgary and a gentile lady from Holland who has made several repeat visits. In total, our group comprised four married couples, 16 ladies and eight men.

We were assigned to a large hospital’s warehouse/supply buildings within a large army base close to Tel Aviv. We were close enough to Ben Gurion airport that we often heard planes.

It was hot. The days were always over 90 with a couple over 100. But as we say about our own Southwest, it is a dry heat so you don’t mind it (ha!).True, one does not perspire but they advise strongly about maintaining water intake. Our bunkhouses were air conditioned. Some work places also were, some were not. We had three to five bunks in each bunkhouse, next to washroom buildings.

We took our meals with base personnel at a nearby cafeteria. Our noon meal was large, with chicken or beef. We had lots of veggies at all three meals — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, olives — served with a big dish of hummus. Some of the Near Eastern food items weren’t for our palates. Their pizza could damage relations with Italy. Dessert was oranges and bananas.

We were issued khaki uniforms: pants, shirt, belt, hat. The uniform seemed to me a little warm for Israel. We were able to change to casual clothes as desired for our evening meal and afterward.

There was a washing machine there, but it didn’t always work, so we hand-washed our clothes as needed and dried them on lines — in minutes, almost.

It wasn’t mind-challenging work but the people we worked with at the base were very pleasant and appreciative. We counted and boxed scalpels, filled boxes with a prescribed list of items to be shelved and inventoried for any need that may arise. Two young female soldiers kept us in line.

When we worked, it was only for about six hours a day. Why not longer, I wondered? There was nothing to do but hang out in the bunks or watch television.

The work week too, was short: Sunday through Thursday at noon, and then the base shuts down for Shabbat.

Weekends, including travel to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, are at one’s expense. There is a whole world to see on those off days.

Volunteers can also stay over at end of their assignments. In Jerusalem, we toured the newly renovated Israel Museum, which was just fabulous, the Begin home, with a well-done audio/visual history, and the Western Wall, of course.

My personal weakness for music was satisfied in Tel Aviv, when I attended a concert of the Israel Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta conducting. The beach in Tel Aviv was also wonderful.

According to the Canadian volunteers, some of whom have had many repeats, assignments can differ greatly: some with lesser living accommodations, very different tasks, some at other ends of the country.

Why did I go? I was looking for something to do. Overall, I would give the Sar-El experience a B. To volunteer for the IDF in Israel felt good.

For more information about Sar-El Volunteers for Israel, go to www.sar-el.org.

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