Volunteering In Israel
By Joel Kleinman
This past April I took a trip to Israel. Initially you may say, what’s so worthy of your trip to warrant penning an article about it? And you would be correct because a lot of people visit Israel from the Hudson Valley. My trip was perhaps a little unique than the typical trip to Israel. I had two reasons to go: 1) to visit my younger son who made Aliyah over a year ago and 2) to participate in the Volunteers for Israel (VRI) or Sar El program.
For those of you who are not familiar with this program let me briefly explain. VFI or Sar El is a program by which people around the world can volunteer to work in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). VFI is what the program is referred to in this country. “Sar-El” is the Hebrew acronym meaning “Service for Israel”, is what it is called in Israel. You can volunteer for one, two or three weeks of work. The week is from Sunday thru Thursday and if you choose more than one week, you get Friday and Saturday off between the weeks. You are assigned to a base, typically a non-combat base, sleep in barracks, eat army food and get to wear a real uniform.
What made this trip unique, if it was not already, was that I went with my brother-in-law (one of my wife’s brothers) Joe who lives in California. He knew nothing of Sar El before I invited him. So you may ask why didn’t my wife go also. That was reason 2b, why I took the trip. As I explained to everyone, I was scouting out the Sar El program to determine if Jane would like it.
To accomplish my first two objectives, we arrived several days before we had to meet at the train station in Tel Aviv and stayed several days after the program ended to see my son.
When we met at the Tel Aviv train station we were split into two groups for two different bases. My group was assigned to Matzrap which was about an hour bus ride away. I was told by the many returnees, this was the best base to be assigned to. I was not told on what criteria this was based on and after five days on the base I felt sorry for the other group. Once we arrived at the base and dropped off at our barracks (that’s military speak for living quarters) we received our uniforms. Unlike what you see in the movies where they give you a uniform irrespective of your size, we were allowed to find the best fitting uniform out of the stack. All I can say is thank goodness for belts, being a short slight guy my belt almost went around me twice but it did a fine job of holding my trousers up which as expected were way too big. We were then organized casually not in formation to proceed to the warehouses we were going to work in for the next five days.
Before we were assigned a specific warehouse to work we met the Commander in charge of the base. He was very appreciative of our volunteering and explained what was done at the particular base we were at. He was polite up until when he asked if we had any questions and he was peppered with questions about how is this done and why are you not doing this or that. He then curtly said stay here three months and then you will understand. I remembered what he said because over the next several days there were many more questions without obvious answers.
Like any good organization they asked for volunteers for each warehouse. And with a group of people who flew from Australia, Austria, Canada, France and mostly the United States there were no shortage of people raising their hands. After first going to a warehouse that the foreman was not present, I was then assigned to a warehouse for the leftovers. That being the people who did not raise their hands quicker enough. We may have been leftovers but we were the most motivated leftovers I have ever met.
Our jobs simply put, was to reorganize for the purpose of re-distribution of medical supplies. I handled over the next day’s more bed pans, burn kits, catheters, gauzes, needles, surgical scissors, syringes and things I had no idea what they were, you get the point, then what a typical person (I hope) sees in a life time. Now you need to understand I am a number cruncher by trade and just visiting a hospital gives me the heepy-jeebies. My doctor tells me I suffer from white-coat syndrome. Luckily he has not prescribed anything for that. After handling all these medical supplies I am hoping I am cured of the white-coat syndrome.
In the evenings, the three young women soldiers who were in charge of us put together programs every night. The first was an opportunity to introduce ourselves to each other. The other nights included introductions by the three soldiers, a session on the Holocaust, discussion on the IDF and showing of a terrific movie entitled “Under the Helmet.” We were provided an official Sar El t-shirt, hat and insignia to put on our epelets. All very cool!
The make-up of the group was mixed in age, gender, spouses, one spouse and singles. The one thing that a majority of the group had in common was this was not their first Sar El program. In fact many individuals had participated in many previous programs. One couple I worked alongside of, this was the husband’s sixth trip and his wife’s first.
Aside from the work, the living quarters and food reminded me of sleep-away camp over forty years ago, outside bathroom and all. I knew we were older because all the top bunks were empty, hey forty years is a long time. Our group gelled very well considering the short time we were together, we even put a skit together the last evening.
The most poignant part of the week was April 15th, Yom Hashoah or Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day") standing at attention with the soldiers and officers while the siren sounded. The other very memorable moment was the morning flag raising and singing of Ha Tikva (The Hope) Israel's National Anthem along with the soldiers.
Of course this leaves the question will I do it again this time with my wife? All I can say is my brother-in-law was a real trooper (ha-ha) throughout the program and saw it as a one-time great experience and opportunity. For me it is an open ended question. If you would like to know more about the Sar El – VFI program please visit their website here.
I want to thank the following friends who previously participated and encouraged me to go: Ida and Rochelle Marshall, Linda and Paul Siegel and Jerome Spector. Legend has it that Ida Marshall went on the very first Sar El trip but I will let her tell you the story.
Jane and Joel Kleiman live in Monroe and have two sons, Benjamin and Lee.
Group shot of all the volunteers
Joel and brother-in-law, Joseph Beson, in uniform
Joel, son Lee and brother-in law
Click on the thumbnail for a larger view