Friends of the IDF helps troops relax

American donors build gyms, offer scholarships to combat vets.

idf story image 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
idf story image 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bat-el Dayan, 19, of the IDF's Nesher (Eagle) Battalion, munches on a cookie while lounging on a couch inside her unit's new mobile club. This club house is one of eight mobile gyms, clubs, and synagogues donated to army bases throughout Israel over the past three years by the New England section of Friends of the IDF (FIDF). FIDF is a non-profit organization devoted to enhancing the well-being of Israel's soldiers through social, educational, and recreational programs. The Spirit Program strives to give every battalion a week of relaxation and rejuvenation in a facility featuring swimming pools, fitness rooms, and other amenities. The Impact Scholarship Program provides scholarships to combat soldiers who have completed their military service but cannot afford higher education. "The special thing about this program is that donors and students are put in contact with one another and make real connections with each other," remarked Joseph Sieber, Secretary of the National Board of FIDF and member of the New England region. "The program sends hundreds of kids to college and does not turn anyone away." The mobile club in which Dayan and her fellow soldiers relaxed was dedicated Wednesday in honor of Sieber's parents, Syd and Harry Sieber. These mobile facilities are built from used shipping containers that are repainted and fitted out with flooring, walls, and windows. They are then supplied with entertainment systems, holy articles, or exercise equipment, depending on whether they are destined to become recreation centers, synagogues, or gyms. Setting up a typical mobile club costs $20,000, while a gym is $30,000. "The soldiers in these small bases on the edge of Gaza and the border of Lebanon are not allowed to leave the base to go for a run. They don't have anywhere to hang out and talk, because they work in shifts, so there are soldiers sleeping in the bunks at all times," explained Sieber. The dedication of the Eagle battalion's club took place during a weeklong FIDF mission to Israel. Members met with soldiers benefitting from the organization's scholarship program, and visited army bases to interact with soldiers and learn about their immediate needs. Joel Ziegler of the New England region stated that "The living conditions during my service in Vietnam were better than what these guys have here." Observing a cardboard panel used as a mattress by one soldier, Ziegler said, "The focus of the government seems to be on technology, not on its manpower. We're trying to help out with things as simple as boots and fleece sweatshirts." The efforts of the FIDF are primarily met with positive feedback. Dayan expressed her gratitude to the organization. "We have been looking forward to this for over a year - I can't tell you how happy I am. These people are real tzadikim." Some soldiers, however, are skeptical. They view FIDF members as hypocritical, donating money from the US, while Israelis are on the front lines, protecting the country's borders. FIDF members said they have been challenged by soldiers who ask why they are not moving to Israel. "I'm a practical guy," responded Ziegler. "My life is in America and my family is in America, but I still do what I can to help." Sieber had a slightly different response. "It's not that I think what I'm doing is enough," he said. "I don't believe it's ever enough. I've been active in this organization only three years and I'm always trying to do more... I would love to be able to quit my job and do this full time." Sieber explained that he did not feel hypocritical because "when we visit Israel and we go to each base to thank the soldiers, they say 'no, thank you.' People don't understand the sincere appreciation that the soldiers have for our work... We're not simply sending funds." The FIDF's New England region hopes to raise enough money to donate 10 more mobile clubs, gyms, and synagogues to bases around Israel by December 2008.