At 76 years of age, Lillian Schoenfeld is unlike many of her counterparts.
Instead of choosing to spend her golden years on the golf course or idly playing
mahjong, Schoenfeld has bucked the tradition of the stereotypical grandmother by
joining the ranks of the IDF volunteer program Sar-El.
“I’m doing my
thing,” the Aventura, Florida, septuagenarian told The Jerusalem Post on Monday,
beaming proudly in her IDF-issued uniform.
Sar-El, which currently hosts
approximately 4,000 volunteers from across the globe every year, originated
during the First Lebanon War in 1982. At the time, the country was in dire need
of additional troops to help transport goods, especially to remote moshavim on
the Golan Heights.
Aharon Davidi, founder of Sar-El and a veteran of the
Unit 101 special forces commandos, suggested that the IDF bolster its forces by
bringing in Jewish volunteers from the US. That year, the IDF brought in 680
volunteers and provided them with food, shelter and transportation from the
airport to the army base.
After their service, many of them pleaded to
return because “they felt they were helping to build the country,” explained
Michael Allouche, who served under Davidi at the time and is the current deputy
commanding officer of the program.
Although over 30 years have elapsed,
not much has changed – other than the statistics.
Sar-El now hosts
volunteers from 40 countries, and in years of greater conflict – such as the
second intifada in 2002 and the First Gulf War in 1991 – the unit welcomed a
staggering 8,000 volunteers.
Cleaning guns, working with electrical
equipment and ensuring storage units are well stocked are only some of the
various roles assigned to Sar-El volunteers.
According to Allouche, the
benefits of Sar-El are many.
For example, some bases – including the
Medical Support Base in Tel Hashomer – are run almost exclusively by the
program’s volunteers, which offers the IDF a significant cost-saving
Also, because of their positive experience with Sar-El, many
volunteers return to their home countries and become de facto goodwill
ambassadors for Israel. What’s more, approximately 10 percent of those
volunteers decide to take their love for Israel one step further by making
Ariel Kartashev, 27, is a proud member of that small yet
The Washington state native arrived with his
family earlier this summer and is currently in the process of making
“If there’s a war, I don’t want to be watching the news on TV and
cheering. I want to be a part of it,” Kartashev said, explaining what it is
about the the Sar-El program that appealed to him.
pro-Israel advocate among Sar-El’s ranks is 66-year-old Morris
Having volunteered 14 times for the unit, Poland-born and
Brooklyn-raised Ryvak is no stranger to the program.
“When I discovered
Sar-El in 1999, I thought, ‘I must do this,’” Ryvak said. Much of his support
for Israel, he explained, comes from his experiences facing rampant
anti-Semitism as a child in Poland.
Chicago native Dan Ramano, who
converted to Judaism in May, enrolled in Sar-El as a way to fully immerse
himself in Jewish life and culture.
While he was initially introduced to
Judaism through his girlfriend, Ramano decided to formulate a personal
relationship with Israel by joining both Birthright and Sar-El on his
“I think it’s good for me to have my own experience here. I
don’t want my entire connection to be based just because of her. I want my own
relationship with Israel,” he explained.
Although Ramano has only been in
Israel for a few weeks, he is already settling in well.
“I feel safer
here than in Chicago,” he said.
Ryvak, too, expressed his strong bond
with Israel, saying, “The other day I was in the Kotel, and I mentioned going
back home. But then a man turned to me and said, ‘You are home.’ And he was