By Anthony Grant
It isn’t every vacation that begins at the Swarovski jewelry counter of a Tel Aviv airport terminal and concludes with sorting cylindrical tank components inside a dusty warehouse on the parched edge of the Judean Desert. Of course, you can’t really equate a week of volunteer army service for the Israel Defense Forces with a holiday. But there’s no way I would trade my participation in a Sar-El National Project for Volunteers for Israel program for a week at Club Med or chilling on the Riviera Maya.
I joined the program with little advance notice and absolutely no idea what to expect. I left it slightly exhausted but also in a different place on my own uncharted map, which is the whole point of travel in the first place. During the experience, my group helped perform non-combat functions in logistics and maintenance, the idea being to help Israel shoulder its sizeable defense burden. We stayed on a base to which we were randomly assigned, slept in a section of the barracks and dined in the mess hall three times a day alongside Israeli soldiers and officers.
It was only because I spotted an errant email from Nefesh B’Nefesh (I relocated to Israel last year) that I even found out about Sar-El. There are two- and three-week programs, too, so my one-week, Sunday-Thursday journey was more Sar-El light, although the work did involve considerably more muscle than is exerted typing on a keyboard. On board were Yankees, Canadians and a lone Frenchman. We were a small but eclectic group, and with the exception of one yutz, all very devoted to the tasks at hand. I befriended Laurent, a 46-year-old Frenchman living in Madrid who had completed Sar-El once before. I was surprised and impressed by his dedication both to Israel (he’s not Jewish) and British Airways (I doubt many French work for “The World’s Favourite Airline”). One late night on a dusty, still road between the mess hall and the barracks, Laurent told me about his grandfather, who hid a French Jewish family on his farm in Provence during the Nazi occupation of France.
Laurent and I were thick as thieves (my fluency in French created instant affinity), but I was most impressed by Eli and Fagie Bernstein of Toledo, the oldest in the group (Eli’s 83) but also the most spirited and dignified — a rare and enviable combination. Mike and Ellen lived in Alaska until God told them to move to Michigan, but He must have also put in a good word for the Holy Land, because Mike raised the Israeli flag one morning like a true Sabra and went about his work with a disciplined affability that set the standard for the rest of us. Then there was Andrea, an American living in Kfar Saba whose daughter is currently serving in the IDF. And I can’t forget gentle Susan from Tallahassee, who celebrated her 65th birthday while on the program, or Abe, a grizzled Torontonian who regaled us with his impersonations of Shimon Peres and mischievous tales of ordering Dominos pizza for his figure-challenged ex-wife. Good times!
Back to the Swarovski counter at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport…that’s where all the program participants were asked to meet at 8 a.m. on the first day of the program. There, we were assigned to specific bases, depending on the length of the program, under the supervision of two madrahot (leaders). We traveled to the base in an air-conditioned bus and started our work shortly after arrival. It was hardly glamorous: we had to clean up and reorganize an old warehouse on a half-forgotten part of the base. It was hot, dusty work, but interesting, too, as we stumbled upon military relics ranging from gear and bullet casings to old signage and much more. The following day, in a different area, we sorted through dozens of soldier duffels, checking to see that the contents — extra clothes and protective gear and the like — were consistent.
Our base was a tank base and also the provisional home of fighters from the IDF’s Givati Brigade, recognizable by their purple berets. A tough, no-nonsense place if I ever saw one. One morning our always helpful madrich, Noa, escorted us on a tour of the tank maintenance area, which was both very cool and very sobering. We had plenty to discuss at lunch in the mess hall that day, and in case you were wondering, the food was great. A bit salty and high in carbohydrates, perhaps, but not one meal was without the best, tangiest cherry tomatoes you could imagine (the cherry tomato was actually created in Israel). Israeli couscous also made a frequent and always welcome appearance. My mother never cooked this well.
I had packed lots of snacks, a good idea because they don’t serve dessert in the Army. One thing the base did have, however, was a little store, open for a few hours every day, where you could buy Israeli snacks, candy and non-alcoholic drinks, including iced coffee (well, until I bought all the iced coffee). It was also one of the few places where we could interact with the soldiers a bit and practice our generally very rusty Hebrew, which embarrassed us but gave them a good laugh.
Three years in the Army, as most Israelis are required to serve, is no laughing matter and a duty practically unimaginable for most Americans. Sar-El offers not only a window into this vital element of Israeli life but also the chance to climb through it and lend a hand, if only for a short while. If you have the time and the stamina for decidedly spartan Army conditions, it’s definitely worthwhile. Sar-El is very much about Israel — what this place is, what shapes it and what it represents. And all these contours come into slightly sharper focus when an Israeli commanding officer looks over your shoulder, approvingly, at a pile of tank parts you’ve just buffed and polished.