Sar-El might close its doors after decades bringing volunteers to Israel

"We can't keep going like this," says Sar-El CEO Keren Dahan

A group of Sar-El volunteers in 2019 (photo credit: Courtesy)
A group of Sar-El volunteers in 2019
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Close to 40 years after it was founded, Sar-El, a nonprofit organization that has brought hundreds of thousands of volunteers from across the globe to help out at IDF bases, is at risk of closing its doors, due to a budget cut.
Sar-El (which is the Hebrew acronym meaning “service for Israel”), founded in 1983, offers logistical support to IDF soldiers on some 20-30 bases across the country.
The nonprofit’s aim is to keep and reinforce the connection between Israel and the Jewish world, and many participants have in fact made aliyah and have been drafted into the IDF following their time with Sar-El.
The organization has brought more than 150,000 volunteers of all ages to Israel from across the globe to act as support staff on military bases across the country, packing medical kits, repairing mechanical equipment, as well as packing and inspecting a variety of field equipment.
In the past two years the organization received a budget from the Defense Ministry. But this year, no budget was given to Sar-El.
Keren Dahan, CEO of Sar-El, told The Jerusalem Post that the organization “decided to roll up our sleeves, look for new funding sources and keep bringing volunteers.”
Though the organization usually brings in 3,500-4,000 participants per year, the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns in Israel have created a major problem, as volunteers are unable to enter Israel.
Because Israel has closed its borders to tourists and to would-be volunteers, “we are targeting a new audience, and we are trying to keep the connections between Diaspora communities and Sar-El by having talks by former volunteers.”
Sar-El stopped bringing in participants for the majority of the year, but three weeks ago reopened its doors, and the IDF reopened bases to some 180 participants who are currently in Israel volunteering.
Before the pandemic, the volunteers were of all ages. Now, the average age is between 18 and 20 years old on the Masa or gap-year programs, and new immigrants between 60 and 70 years old.
“It’s really beautiful because on the bases you can see the mix of age groups and nationalities. It’s very touching; everyone is talking about their aliyah story and the difficulties they are facing,” Dahan said, adding that the group is accompanied by a “guide who does activities with them and teaches them Hebrew and more.”
And despite the ongoing pandemic, Dahan said, there are groups expected to come every week until January.
“We are getting thousands of emails from participants who are asking when they are able to come back and volunteer,” Dahan said. “People miss the experience of Sar-El; it’s like a big family, and people want to see their families.”
But the lack of funds worries Dahan, who is already working part-time and already had to cut workers due to the lack of funds.
Though Sar-El is trying to have a budget for the coming year, one of the goals of the organization, she said, is to make Sar-El more independent and autonomous, which would mean finding a new way to bring in funds.
“Sar-El began because of an ideology and not because of money, and that’s how we want to continue,” she said, stressing that “we decided to continue because our goal is what is important.”
Nevertheless, she added, “we can’t keep going like this.”
In response, the Defense Ministry said: “Between the years 2018-2019, the Ministry of Defense acquired services from the Sar-El organization in the area of volunteer recruitment to the IDF.
“The ministry is currently evaluating the possibility of renewing its activities with the organization for the upcoming year (2021), contingent upon the receipt of the necessary budget from the IDF, and in accordance with legal considerations.”