A literary adventure with Sar-El

Sar-El ‒ a Hebrew acronym for “service to Israel” ‒ is an extraordinary organization.

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Sar-El ‒ a Hebrew acronym for “service to Israel” ‒ is an extraordinary organization, known in English as Volunteers for Israel, a name it shares with its sister organization in the US. Founded in 1983 by retired Israeli general Aharon Davidi, its self-appointed task is to enable people from across the world to come to Israel as civilian volunteers in the Israeli army. They pay their own way, and for a few weeks undertake routine, but sometimes back-breaking, manual labor on army and air force bases ‒ work that would otherwise have to be undertaken by military personnel.

For 18 years Mark Werner, a US corporate lawyer, forsook his comfortable American lifestyle for several weeks to slog away as a Sar-El volunteer, in a practical effort to demonstrate his commitment to Israel. Now president of Volunteers for Israel, Werner has used the journals he kept over those years to describe his experiences working within the Israeli military.

The extent of the Sar-El reach is quite astonishing. Every year, up to 5000 people flock to volunteer for logistical and routine graft in Israeli military barracks. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that some 20% of those volunteers are not Jewish. Since its inception, the project has brought more than a quarter of a million volunteers to Israel from 30 countries.

Werner recounts how he once asked a particularly friendly soldier, Joshua, what his comrades actually thought of the motley collection of volunteers who had been working on his base for the past few weeks,

“They all think you’re crazy,” was the reply at first. “They are required to sacrifice three years of their lives to serve our country. They don’t understand why you would leave your families and your comfortable lives in your home countries to work on our base.” That was not the end of the conversation, though, for Joshua continued: “But there’s something else... They call you ‘angels from God’ behind your backs.” He explained that the presence of the volunteers made a huge difference to the shift patterns on the base. Backlogs of work that would otherwise certainly have to be disbursed among the military personnel, eating into their off-duty and leave time, amazingly vanished. Instead of working overtime, as they would undoubtedly have had to do, soldiers were finding that they were allowed to go off on weekend leave an hour early. “You are angels from God,” said Joshua.

Werner recounted his early experiences of being embedded within the Israeli military in his first book, Army Fatigues: Joining Israel’s Army of International Volunteers, and he takes up the story four years on, in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War.

Inevitably his periods spent on army and air force bases, albeit for a comparatively brief time each year, mirror Israel’s history over those eventful years. This volume begins in 2006, in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War. The young soldier, Gilat Schalit, had been captured by Hamas, which was subjecting the country to intensive rocket attacks. At the same time, in the North, Hezbollah had launched a strike on Israel from within Lebanon, sending Iranian-made rockets to strike inside Israel. All-out conflict had broken out and the UN had brokered a ceasefire.

Werner had booked his flight to Israel a month before, determined to maintain his Sar-El volunteering schedule. Once on base, he found himself one of a batch of a hundred volunteers, and learned that the conflict, far from diminishing the annual flow, had resulted in a jump in the usual numbers.

His subsequent periods of service, during which he was joined by his son David on five occasions, covered Israel’s three wars against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. From the multitude of episodes he describes, working hard in less than comfortable circumstances with people from all over the world, Werner distills two great themes.

First was the intense comradeship that developed among them, friendships that often outlived their two or three weeks spent together. Heavy manual labor undertaken side by side seemed to foster and cement a special kind of camaraderie.

Second was a theme Werner says he heard time and again from his companion volunteers as to their motives for undertaking the experience. Acknowledging that individuals may well have varied and personal reasons for signing up with Sar-El, Werner discerned one central inspiration ‒ a passion to help preserve the state of Israel. From Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers alike, says Werner, this passion emanated “loud and clear”.

In A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-El Volunteer, Mark Werner describes a unique volunteering opportunity ‒ there is nothing quite like it available anywhere else ‒ and the sense of intense personal fulfillment that it provides to those who avail themselves of it. His account of his varied experiences when planted within the Israeli military not only makes absorbing reading in itself, but explains a little of how Israel’s defense forces operate, and the pressures that are placed upon them from time to time. On both counts, A Passion for Israel is recommended reading ‒ and if it invokes a desire to share this unusual volunteering experience, so much the better.
A Passion for Israel: Adventures of a Sar-El Volunteer

Mark Werner

Gefen Publishing House

Hardcover: 488 pages; $29.95