It was still early as we lined up in front of the flag pole, jostling about, trying to mimic the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops to our left. We were volunteers, a mixed-bag of Zionists from literally around the world – New Zealand, Australia and South Africa; Russia, England and Holland; Chile, Canada and the U.S. Surely we could figure out how to stand along the lines painted in the asphalt where we stood and snap to attention when the order came from the commander.
Our hearts were mostly in the right place, but it was tough to look polished and professional wearing uniforms that were a blend of khaki shirts and pants, boots and running shoes, IDF-issue hats and hometown baseball caps. We were young and not so young; Jews, Christians and atheists; men and women. And we were thrilled to be at Tel Hashomer, the huge IDF base just outside of Tel Aviv, beginning our day of work the way soldiers had gone about this business for eons.
The young troops were called to attention and we followed their lead, managing for the moment to stand tall and proud. The scene played out in an instant, a blur that has been part of this country for 61 years – a soldier unfurling a flag of blue and white, lofting it into the sky, the Star of David caught in the wind, flying free over the land of Israel.
I was part of the ritual now, at least for the moment, an adventure that in some fashion could probably be linked to my childhood. Like many American Jews, Israel was an important, if quiet part of my childhood. I learned about it in Hebrew school, handed over my nickels and dimes to the Jewish National Fund to buy trees to replenish its forests, attended youth conventions where we sang about “David, the King of Israel” and learned to dance the Hora. During my college years I even worked on the staff of a summer camp in Western North Carolina, Camp Judea, funded by Hadassah and the Zionist Organization of America.
Then I blinked and life happened. Three decades later I was working as a newspaper editor in Atlanta when I stumbled across a website that detailed a program, Sar-El, which had been created to enlist the help of volunteers to work on IDF bases in Israel. I was intrigued. Over the next decade, whenever I had a free moment between editing stories and attending news meetings, I would return to the website. Everything about the program seemed exciting – it was in a distant, ancient land that was part of my heritage; it involved work that was, well, menial, but important; it was a concrete way to help Israel when often it seemed politics and world opinion had turned its back on the Jewish homeland. And, heck, you got to wear a uniform. How cool is that!
The program became a secret fantasy, the place where I could go when work and life became too frenzied and frantic. And then a strange thing happened. The economy soured and work and life really did become too much. After accepting a buy-out from my struggling company earlier this year, Sar-El no longer seemed a dream. It became real, something I could do to escape the tumbling economy and the litany of woes that filled the news. The time had come to re-connect with that special place that had become part of my life as a child.
And that’s exactly what I did. The adventure began with a 12-hour flight that left me weary and sore and in search of my Sar-El guide at Ben Gurion International Airport. I was traveling with Bill, a friend and former colleague. We had both worked for the daily paper in Atlanta for nearly three decades and he, too, was looking for some relief from the stress of daily life and a little adventure on an Israeli army base.
What Bill and I initially found at Tel Hashomer was a tiny, but tidy volunteer compound in one corner of the massive installation. At first glance it had the look of a struggling summer camp – sun-bleached huts, surrounding a courtyard that was a bit frayed around the edges. The huts were a euphonic blend of college-dorm simplicity and jailhouse utility – basic cots and metal lockers, concrete walls and fluorescent lighting. The hut I stumbled into also featured a window air conditioner – hallelujah – still chugging away in a half-hearted sort of way despite missing its front cover and most of its controls. No matter. I had found my home for the next three weeks and everything I needed was at hand.
It was a restless first night for me and Bill and many of the other volunteers, jet-lagged and not yet acclimated to the sweltering heat of late summer in Israel. So it was actually a relief to roll out of bed when the sun finally spilled across the compound and it was time to begin our first day of work.
The IDF embraces routine and Sar-El embraces the IDF. Our mornings began with breakfast – eggs, yogurt, salad, bread, jam, coffee, tea and, when we were lucky, chocolate milk – followed by flag raising, news of the day and announcements, then work. That first day we polished off our eggs, saluted the flag, then followed our IDF guides, Nachshon and Liron, on a tour of the warehouse area where most of us were assigned jobs.
Before reporting to work, Bill and I and several others new to the group were marched – well, walked – over to the quartermaster’s depot and issued uniforms. I’d been warned that IDF garb came in two sizes – too big and too small. And while that was pretty much the case, most of us managed to walk away with a pair of pants, shirt, belt and hat that looked just fine once we had properly tucked, bloused, buttoned, zipped and rolled any loose or extra material into the proper shape. In fact, for just a moment, we looked and felt like soldiers.
After snapping a few photos to share with friends and family, Bill and I found our way back to the warehouse area and met our boss, Barack, a tall, smiling guy with a shock of salt and pepper hair spilling about his face. A few other volunteers – Maayan and Roxanne from the U.S. and Barbara from New Zealand – were already at work, sorting through cardboard boxes of medical supplies.
Bill and I were soon dipping into similar boxes filled with some sort of IV device – I never did figure out exactly what the equipment was used for in the field. Our job was to check the expiration date on the clear, plastic bags holding the devices, then check that the bags had not been compromised. Bags that remained in good shape – no rips or holes, wet spots or mildew – were sorted by expiration date. Everything else was tossed into the trash.
Two hours and several hundred bags later and it was time for lunch – hummus and other similar spreads; salads, vegetables, rice or pasta; some sort of beef, chicken or veggie surprise. Three hours and several hundred bags more in the afternoon and it was time for dinner – more hummus, more salads, more pasta. Add a few hours of free time around lunch and dinner and a special program each evening, multiply by three weeks and subtract the weekends – long weekends that included Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – and you begin to have a sense of the ebb and flow of camp life for volunteers.
The numbers, however, don’t capture the heart of the program – the volunteers and their stories. For most, Israel wasn’t just a tourist destination or a break from the routine. For some, the journey was a calling, a mission of heavenly import. Others were driven by less cosmic considerations.
“I was trying to impress a girl,” a young guy from Florida said, explaining why he was in Israel. It was a surprising admission, followed with a blush and a shrug. All of this was offered up during an evening program exploring why we were serving as volunteers. Others talked about their love of Israel, a need to offer support, a desire to step outside the tourist bubble and interact directly with Israelis.
I mumbled something about the economy, being semi-retired and having the time to give. And then I shared a story about a previous trip to Israel and visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s world-class holocaust museum.
Moments after walking through the children’s memorial there, a profoundly moving experience that recalls the 1.5 million youngsters murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, I stumbled onto a group of soldiers. They had just exited the memorial also. Inexplicably, they were joking around, laughing and chatting. I found myself getting angry. But after a moment’s reflection, it seemed to me there was something redemptive about the scene and the young soldiers’ behavior.
In a fashion I still find difficult to articulate, the young Israelis seemed part of a chain, one additional link that includes the heartbreak of the Holocaust and establishment of the State of Israel, ancient wars and prophesies, the patriarchs and cosmic promises. The laughing soldiers, at least on this day, were the Jewish people’s victory and future, and I realized I felt comfort in their presence.
Sar-El, I told the group at Tel Hashomer, was my way of saying thanks. It was also, I’ve realized recently, my way of becoming an active part of the chain once again, linking me with a land, a people and belief that stretches back thousands of years.
Top photo: The flag goes up to begin the day.
Middle photo: Ron Feinberg in his new uniform.
Bottom photo: Bill Hendrick works in the warehouse.