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Volunteering in Sar-El

sarel-_20210814-150433_1 Our group of Sar-El volunteers

Age is of No Concern

Several weeks ago, I found myself shlepping boxes full of medical supplies and loading them onto pallets. I suddenly asked myself: How did I get here?

The answer: I was volunteering in Sar-El (Sherut LeYisrael which means service for Israel)

Sar-El enables people, both inside and outside Israel, to volunteer to provide much needed assistance to the IDF while both contributing to the country, experiencing Israel and at the same time integrating into Israeli society. At present, due to Covid-19 and its resulting limitations on visitors here, it is rare to meet a non-resident volunteer.

Sar-El volunteering comes in two types: arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon, or arriving on Sunday in the morning and leaving after lunch on Thursday (sleeping on the base).

This past week, my wife Ida and I went to a central pickup spot in north Tel Aviv and were taken by bus with the rest of our group to the medical division (Matzrap which is Hebrew shorthand for Center For Medical Supplies) of Tel Hashomer, a large army base 25 minutes away from Tel Aviv. The usual group has about 15 volunteers, evenly divided between the sexes. Before Covid the groups would consist of 25 people, evenly divided between the sexes and about 60% Jewish and 40% non-Jewish. My co-workers ranged in age from 20 to 92.

On arriving at the base, we are taken to our dorm building with men and women sleeping on separate floors. We are told that there is to be no alcohol, drugs or romantic liaisons. Discussions of religion and politics are strictly forbidden. The group is led by two to three group leaders (madrichot) who are part of an IDF unit trained to lead Sar-El groups. Sar-El is an actual unit of the IDF and while on the base you are under IDF jurisdiction, which means that you can't leave the base except with hard-to-get permission.

We then got our IDF uniforms, which consist of a shirt, pants and a belt. You can wear your own shoes and socks. One is required to wear the uniform from the morning till after dinner.

A usual day's schedule: Breakfast from 7am till 8am. Flag-raising is at 8:15am followed by the singing of Hatikvah with the group at attention. This is a very emotional moment for many volunteers as we feel that we are assembled from all over the world with the same purpose, namely, to do something important for Israel.I have been on 10 Sar-Els and have met people from Canada, the US, New Zealand, Australia, many European countries, South Africa, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. One of the biggest treats in Sar-El is that you meet so many interesting people with such varied backgrounds. It is an extremely broadening experience and you make close friends for life.

Announcements come after flag-raising. The group leaders ask us if there are any problems, concerns or questions. In my experience they have been very attentive to problems, try to solve them to the best of their ability and are very patient. They are very impressive young women.

We are then assigned to our various workstations.

The work done is dependent on the type of base. Last week was my fifth time in Matzrap. This area deals with the packing and loading of medical supplies in boxes. Other parts of Matzrap deal with checking whether batches of medical equipment, such as stethoscopes, pressure gauges and night vision equipment, are functioning properly, or checking expiration dates of drugs. The supplies are for use here in Israel or by emergency units sent abroad to assist in disaster areas.

I have worked on bases where the primary job was to clean and organize warehouses on storage bases. On one occasion, I found myself sweeping out a warehouse with two other people; one was an internist and the other a chemical engineer with a number of patents to his credit.

I first found out about Sar-El in early 2006 by reading about it in an article in The Jerusalem Report. When the second Lebanon war broke out that year, Ida and I flew to Israel and were assigned to a supply base in the Negev where we loaded tanks, assembled army equipment, packed uniforms and weapons and loaded food. The work was intense and we worked hard. In general, I would say that every Sar-El group in which I have participated has been very hard-working and dedicated.

One of my favorite activities in Matzrap is to help prepare worktables for intellectually-challenged adolescents. We put packages of supplies together for them to take apart and sort. It is very stimulating to see these young people working and getting a feeling of accomplishment. There is always a small thank you ceremony at the end of the work period that I find quite touching.

One thing that has struck me since moving to Israel in 2016 is the degree to which people here are encouraged to reach their potential, no matter what their background and abilities.

Another group of bases where I have volunteered for Sar-El are for packing of food. We have put together hundreds of boxes of packaged foods. The demand for these services goes up especially during conflict periods but the demand is always there.

Work continues till lunch at noon. After lunch and a rest period (and for those who participate, Mincha prayers), we return to work till 4pm. Rest period till 6pm, then dinner. At 7pm there is an evening activity of some sort, either educational or entertaining, such as quizzes, led by the group leaders. The atmosphere is extremely relaxed.

Working in Moshiah’s (yes Moshiach) workshop on base. Sar-El:

Sar-El itself was the brainchild of the late General Aharon Davidi, the former head of the IDF Paratrooper and Infantry Corps. In the summer of 1982, in the midst of the First Lebanon War, Golan Heights communities faced the disastrous prospect of losing their entire agricultural crop. The majority of able-bodied farmers and other workers were called up for army reserve duty and entire farms, with crops already ripened, were left unattended, due to the acute manpower shortage.

General Davidi was then Director of Community and Cultural Activities of the Golan and Jordan Valley. Touched by the farmers' distress, he sent a number of friends as a recruitment team to the United States. Within a few weeks, some 650 volunteers arrived in Israel to lend their support through volunteer labor. Realizing the merits of that action, those first volunteers expressed the wish that the volunteer project be continued as an ongoing volunteer organization. As a result, in the spring of 1983, Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, was founded as a non-profit, non-political organization. Sar-El is represented in over 30 countries worldwide.

On many occasions, the Sar-El volunteers work with soldiers who are assigned to the same workstations. At the beginning, the soldiers are amazed that there are people who actually volunteer for this, but after a while, discussions are held during which the soldiers talk about their future plans, get advice from older souls and get to practice their English.

The last lunch on Thursday before the group leaves on the bus back to Tel Aviv can be a very quiet time. By then we have gotten used to each other, laughed, sweated and yelled at each other and many of us have become quite close. The group leaders always set up a WhatsApp group for people who wish to join and through which we get our notifications. These WhatsApp groups can exist well beyond the end of the group being together.

I have no doubt that, on balance, I have gotten more from volunteering for Sar-El than from any other contribution that I might have made through my own volunteering. It has been an enormously enriching experience for both Ida and myself.

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