Volunteering to Help the Israeli Army

            January 2013    
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Serving in the Israeli Army without being in the Israeli Army

By Moshe Pollock

I removed my army uniform, grabbed my towel and trudged off to the shower room. The four other men in my barracks had already headed for the mess hall. It was the conclusion of another rewarding day of serving the Israeli army.

Every year, individuals from more than 60 countries come to Israel to volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) under the auspices of Sar-El (the Hebrew acronym for "Service to Israel"). They are not given weapons. They do not serve in tanks. But they do wear uniforms and live on army bases. They work in warehouses, hospitals, kitchens, garages and other places, relieving the load on soldiers. They take over functions that enable the military personnel to focus on the essential duties of defending Israel.

My Sar-El group was atypical in that it served for only week because of the holidays. Sar-El service generally extends for three weeks to a maximum of three months. But our group was illustrative of the persons who volunteer. There were 25 of us representing 13 nations including Israel. Evenly divided between men and women, we ranged in age from 18 to about 70. Approximately 40% of us were not Jewish. There was a babel of English accents and a variety of backgrounds. For example, there were a taxi driver from Belgrade, a Zurich policeman and a nurse from Finland.

We were assigned to the IDF medical supply base. I worked with about a half dozen others of our team in packing thousands of individual medical kits. We counted out the burn dressings, IV catheters, gauze rolls, tourniquets and pressure dressings. We laughed and exchanged stories of our personal histories while we filled the kits. But it was sobering to recognize just what our work product would be utilized for. Repeatedly it was said, "May none of these kits ever be used."

Our group performed another task. We worked on emergency packs to be distributed to victims of earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters around the world. What we had to do was unwrap the previously sealed packs and remove the alcohol prep pads. Why? The pads had been manufactured in Israel and this fact was printed on the wrapper. If Israel attempted to donate, through a third country or an international relief organization, tens of thousands of these emergency medical kits to a nation experiencing a crisis, they might be rejected.

Certain Arab, Islamic or other countries might not accept the critically-needed kits if they came from "The Little Satan," Israel. To ensure that they will be accepted, the IDF ensures that its medical emergency kits contain no indication that they emanate from Israel. We replaced the mistakenly inserted alcohol pads imprinted with "Made in Israel" with those saying "Manufactured in the U.K."

The 24 individuals with whom I served were delightful. Their buoyant, can-do attitude was not moderated in the least by the thin bed pads or the communal shower facilities. Not a discouraging word was heard the entire week. Each of them contributed to the esprit de corps. Each of them came with an interesting background and unique personality. The common characteristic was a desire to help Israel in any manner that he or she could.

It was clear what kind of individuals these were immediately upon our arrival at our army base. One of the veteran volunteers began spraying the barracks door hinges from a can of WD-40 that she had brought with her to Israel. It was at that time that I recognized that if there were a Sar-El Volunteer of the Week Award, the competition was going to be quite rigorous.

Our week was a rewarding experience for each of us. The days were long, with breakfast at 7:30 followed by the moving flag raising ceremony before we divided into our specific areas. There were activities and educational presentations every evening. (The Sar-El program that is not holiday-shortened includes tours about the country and visits to sites of historic significance to Israel and the Jewish people.)

The base personnel could not have been friendlier. They repeatedly asked us if we were enjoying ourselves, if there were anything they could do for us. The mess hall food provided by an outside caterer was unexpectedly varied and tasty. All the buildings were air conditioned.

It is worthwhile to note the genesis of Sar-El. During the first Lebanon War in 1982, most of the farmers in the north of Israel had been called up for active duty. They were forced to abandon their farms. There was fear that the year's entire agricultural crop would be lost. The late, beloved General Aharon Davidi, Ph.D. was in charge of community activities in the Golan Heights at that time. He had the idea that volunteers from the United States might come to Israel and make up the acute personnel shortage. General Davidi sent a recruitment team to the States. Within a few weeks, approximately 650 volunteers arrived in Israel to provide sweat equity at that critical time. Those first volunteers expressed the desire that the project continue. The following year, Sar-El was founded as a non-profit, non-political organization. It now has representatives in more than 30 countries. Each year, thousands of individuals from around the world serve in Sar-El. Many volunteers return every year.

Our group's service concluded a few days before Rosh Hashanah. About half the individuals elected to spend the holiday in Israel before returning to their homes. Every one of our team expressed a desire to serve Israel and the IDF through Sar-El again. It is a meaningful and memorable experience which I highly recommend.


from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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