A decade ago, while on a visit to Israel, I ran across two men having breakfast, alone, in the hotel where I was staying. The dining room was empty, except for these two men. As it was a Shabbat, I was curious (perhaps a little nosy) as to why they were dining in the hotel. They told me they were in Israel to do Sar-El and explained what it was.
Never having heard of this Sar-El “thing,” I was very taken with this fascinating idea that Americans were using their vacation to help Israel. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after my return to the US, and I told my family how meaningful it was and something that I wanted to do. Unfortunately, as the mother of four teenagers, I was not in a position to “join up.” Five years later, having made aliyah to Netanya in 2016, I found myself at a Shabbat dinner with a woman who, during the course of the conversation, told me she had just returned from a week on an IDF base with Sar-El. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one could volunteer for Sar-El, while living in Israel.
I grew up in New Jersey, knowing there are military bases in the state, but most people never get to see them. We hardly even got to see soldiers in transit, never mind, on duty. Yes, there are soldiers, but they are sent overseas or spend most of their time on bases and live there or nearby – often not close to their homes prior to enlisting in the military.
There is a real disconnect between living in the US and what the soldiers are doing. Living in Israel, it is a totally different story. You cannot go anywhere in Israel without seeing soldiers on or off duty. They ride the trains, the buses and they even hitchhike. They are in cafes, markets, malls and even ice cream shops. They are a part of Israeli life and, for the most part, they are very young. It is a little unnerving the first time you ride a train or a bus or go for ice cream and there are young men and women, some in uniform, some not, with their rifles slung over a shoulder. Even off duty, an Israeli soldier, who has a gun, usually keeps it with them at all times. The soldiers here are protecting the very small country that I am now a part of, a county the size of New Jersey, where I came from. There is a deep awareness, that they are protecting me, something I never knew I needed. Finding out that I could be a volunteer here, to support them, was a “life-quake” for me.
I have done lots of volunteering in my life, but nothing as meaningful as participating in Sar-El. I have been on bases nine times, a week at a time. The bases that I have been on have all been logistics bases, and, believe me, even though I get to wear a uniform, no one gives me a gun. I have worked in kitchens chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes (good old fashioned KP duty) and washing floors. I have cleaned and organized warehouses and helped repair communication equipment.
My favorite place is the medical base where I unpacked and sorted old supplies that have come back to the base to be replaced by new supplies. I worked side-by-side with soldiers and civilian employees. On every base our volunteers are greeted with smiles and hugs. The soldiers there are so grateful for the support as well as relief from some of their own work.
The IDF has selected soldiers (madrichot) who stay with the volunteers while on the base to make assignments, ensure everyone has a bed to sleep on (two or more to a room), and offer meaningful Israeli/IDF programs in the evenings.
At times the work is exhausting. I have napped in a chair in a warehouse after workday because I was too tired to walk back to the dorm, exhausted and at the same time so energized. I have made many overseas friends from the US, Canada, England, Norway, Germany, South American, South Africa, France and the Ukraine. Most are Jewish, many are not. They come year after year with the same love for support for Israel that I have. Because of COVID-19, the thousands of volunteers that would normally come to volunteer are unable to do so. I am currently organizing English-speaking Sar-El locals to do daily work on the medical base (no sleepovers). The extra bonus in all this – the woman I met that night at that long-ago Shabbat dinner is now one of my very best Israeli friends. The writer, who lives in Netanya, is a volunteer ambassador for the Komen Foundation, Hadassah Hospital and Sar-El