By Harvey Weiner, JWV National Judge Advocate
Sometime around 1982 during the Galilee War, my wife and I were asked to host a dinner for a visiting retired Israel Defense Force (IDF) general, who was in the United States recruiting civilian volunteers to come to Israel to help the IDF in support positions. We had a pleasant evening with Dr. Aharon Davidi (z”l), the former head of the IDF Paratroopers and Infantry Corps. Over cognac, about which the general was an expert, I somehow promised him that I would eventually participate in his program if it came to fruition. As a result of his efforts, 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 the Hebrew acronym meaning “Service for Israel.”
Each year since then, volunteers, including those in their 70’s and 80’s, work on non-combat IDF bases throughout Israel doing support work for a one to three week period. Although such volunteers are civilians and not members of the IDF, they are led by madrachot, who are IDF soldiers. Volunteers work on a Sunday through Thursday schedule doing work such as quartermaster/supply work, base maintenance, maintenance and equipment repair, kitchen work or construction. Weekends are for traveling, sightseeing and visiting family and friends. There are frequent interesting lectures and question and answer sessions with Sar-El and military personnel. Of course, you work side by side with IDF soldiers, many of whom are now proud owners of Boston Red Sox pens. Alas, there are no JWV pens!
The free facilities are spartan and not a little nostalgic. Volunteers live in communal barracks in sleeping bags on cots with communal bathrooms. There is no central heat or air conditioning. Hot water is at a premium. Men and women are housed separately, including married couples. The mess hall food, however, is filling.
In December, 2015, over thirty-three years after I had rashly made a promise to the General, I spent two weeks for Sar-El in an army base in central Israel. Better late than never. We were a group of fourteen and worked very hard collecting, inventorying and crating military supplies, particularly tank maintenance equipment and parts. One of our speakers told us that Sar-El volunteers have unusually high productivity, presumably because they are motivated and because they only have a very short time commitment. There is both an initiation ceremony, during which the Sar-El epaulettes are placed on you, and a graduation ceremony, during which you receive the Sar-El pin and a Certificate of Appreciation.
The makeup of Sar-El volunteers is diverse. About 4,000 volunteers come per year and in 2014 they were from 51 countries. Tellingly, in 2014, France had the most volunteers with 1,161 with the U.S. having 938. France, of late, has the most people making Aliyah. In our group of fourteen, there were volunteers from Canada, England and South Africa, as well as the United States, and we were joined for a brief period on our bus by a small group from Hungary and Holland. There was also a Christian in our group, who is an avid supporter of Israel. Most of my Sar-El volunteer group were repeats and one woman in our group was there for the 13th time. The group bonded and there was a great sense of camaraderie and friendship, as well as a lot of laughs.
One day, the group went north of Haifa on a tour of the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum and there became the first to plant yellow daffodils in Israel as part of Project Daffodil, whereby it is intended to plant 1.5 million daffodils throughout the world in memory of the 1.5 million children who were murdered in the Shoah. (See daffodilproject.net )
There are no upper age limits for volunteers, and there were two volunteers in our group in their 70’s, but one should be relatively fit and healthy and willing to work. I was given one of the daily honors of raising the Israeli flag on the Israeli base followed by the singing of Hatikvah. My ancestors (and General Davidi) would have kvelled. (Many of the facts above are taken from the Sar-El website).
You can tie in a Sar-El experience prior to the JWV Israel trip, as did Membership Chair Barry Lischinsky, or you can do it independently, as I did and as National Quartermaster Nelson Mellitz did.
Volume 73. Number 1. 2019