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Glaun: Volunteering in Israel with Sar-El Canada

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The arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

At last I was on the plane and winging my way to Israel. Was this really happening to me? I had waited so long for this day to come to fruition and here I was, after 32 years, finally returning.

Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, I realized this was not the Israel I had left in 1986, but a thriving technological wonder. I marvelled at the new airport with its beautiful Jerusalem stone façade, the tall palm trees slightly moving in the cool fresh air, and then saw the sign welcoming visitors in English and in Hebrew. It felt so good to be back.

I proceeded to walk toward the security check-in, all the while bursting with pride at this little country that, against all odds, survives and excels at what she does. I had already told myself that, when posed with questions from security, I would reply in English, even though I am fluent in Hebrew, and would not volunteer any information unless asked for it. I was ready.

The first question was, “What is the purpose of your trip?”

“I’m coming on Sar-El,” I replied.

“What is Sar-El?” the security person asked.

“Volunteers for Israel,” I said, a little surprised that he did not know.

I waited for some reaction from him, but there was silence. I was bursting to tell anyone who would be willing to listen that I had made this journey after being away for so long. This was a big deal for me. All my previous negotiating with myself went by the wayside and I blurted out, “I’ve been away for 32 years and this is my first trip back.”

Again there was silence. Now what? Was I in trouble?

He then looked up and said, “What took you so long? Welcome back!”

That was that, I was free to enter Israel. I smiled and said to myself, “This is going to be the best adventure of my life. Thank you, God, for getting me here safely.”

Once I had my luggage, I proceeded to find the sunglasses stand where volunteers for Sar-El typically meet. Pam Lazarus, an expat from the United States who had made aliyah 17 years ago, is the person who runs Sar-El in Israel. The organization was founded in 1987 by Gen. Aharon Davidi. Volunteers from all corners of the globe come to join Sar-El for periods of between one to three weeks. Qualifications include love for Israel, being of sound mind, physically fit, and able to carry your own luggage, as many buildings do not have elevators. You do not have to be Jewish.

Volunteers typically register with a Sar-El office in their area (there are offices in major cities worldwide). The cost of registration is $100 and volunteers have to pay for the flight. Volunteers must also have a clean bill of health from their doctor before being accepted into the program.

READ: SAHAR: WHY I’M EAGER TO SERVE IN THE IDF

While on the base, each person is assigned a room, which they will typically share with one or more persons, and is given three meals a day. Some bases will even organize a free day trip to somewhere of interest. It is a very fulfilling and economical way of experiencing a little of Israel.

Once you are on the army base, you are there until Thursday afternoon (when it clears for Shabbat) until Sunday morning, when the work week begins again.

I was assigned to a medical supply base near Tel Aviv. This base does not have soldiers on it but rather reservists and full-time employees. (There are other bases in the surrounding area, but we were not permitted access to these.)

Upon arriving at the base I was given my army uniform. (Yes you get to wear a uniform). The correct size of uniform is not high on the priority list, as I discovered. I spent the next three weeks in a very roomy pair of unflattering army pants which I held up with an army belt (this was pretty safe as long as I was vigilant when bending down, when the belt would slip just a little too much), a short- or long-sleeve T-shirt (I wore khaki ones to complete the look), a long-sleeve khaki shirt, and an army jacket. I felt so proud wearing this uniform.

Then it was time to see where I was going to live for the next little while. My roommate was an older woman in her late 60s from the U.S., who had made aliyah a few years earlier with her husband (her daughters were already living in Israel), and who had decided to come on Sar-El for just a week. I had the good fortune for the remainder of my stay to have the room to myself.

Volunteers are instructed to bring their own sheets, while blankets are provided by the base. I chose to take a lightweight sleeping bag, which proved to be very comfortable and warm. All rooms have an air-conditioning/heating system and basic storage units. Women are housed on the upper level of a two- storey building. Both floors were supplied with a washing machine. I later found out this is quite a luxury and not the norm; dryers are not common in Israel. There were three shower stalls delivering hot water at all times. I was at the Hilton of army bases.

A typical day begins with breakfast at 7:15 a.m. It was a  standard European breakfast: tomatoes, cucumbers, sometimes cornflakes, yogurt (milk seemed to be scarce), cheeses, bread, and olives. A good start to the day. At 7:45 we meet up with our 19-year-old madrichot (most of the time we had two) in the courtyard close to the dining hall for the raising of the flag and the singing of the national anthem, and then we get news from within Israel and abroad, depending on which countries we are from. Thank goodness for the Internet.

Then it is off to work until midday, when we make our way to the dining hall for lunch. (I should add that on every army base there is a synagogue.)

This base is the main military medical base in Israel and also the primary depot. Thus, every 18 months medical military units drop off complete medical supplies. They then pick up new and replenished supplies for the next 18 months, which are divided between bases. Medical supplies with expiry dates of between six-18 months are used first in hospitals and emergency rooms, while supplies with a six-month expiry date are used for training purposes and donations to third-world countries. Medical kits are made up for many applications, such as atomic and biological chemical kits, combat doctors, and combat medics.

I had a great boss, Israel, a first-generation Sabra, whose family had emigrated from Buchara in Uzbekistan  (part of the former Soviet Union). He was patient and explained exactly how to do things. There were times when we were waiting for supplies to be delivered, which afforded us the opportunity to sit down and learn about one another – where we were from, our lives in our own countries, and to hear about Israel’s life in Israel.

He never stopped thanking us for our service, as did many Israelis I met when off the base. They are so grateful for the service the volunteers provide on Sar-El. This, in turn, is so gratifying for us, knowing that we are making a difference by giving back just a little to the country. I must say it was an even better feeling when medical backpacks were returned to us with medical supplies unused!

Despite being a country on a constant war-footing, the zest for life is just unbelievable. I noticed this in Tel Aviv, where I spent my weekends. The bustling traffic, people sitting at coffee shops and in restaurants, shopping at the Carmel Market, youngsters speeding down busy main intersections on the new fad, the electric scooter, hip-looking men and women walking along Tel Aviv’s beautiful promenade with all breeds of dogs, people on the beach laughing and listening to music, picnickers on the lawn with little children frolicking nearby and buskers entertaining the passing throng of people. What a beautiful, perfect picture it painted in an imperfect world.

The workday on the base ends at 4 p.m., when you are free to do whatever you like within its confines. You are not at liberty to leave the base other than at the end of the workweek. Dinners on the base are eaten early. Thereafter, the madrichot plan interesting discussion groups or movies. By 9 p.m. most people are ready for bed.

On weekends we can go anywhere as long as we are at the main train station in Tel Aviv on Sunday morning at 9:30, when we are picked up and taken back to the base. Volunteers have to pay for their off-base accommodation, but there is a hostel in Tel Aviv specifically for Sar-El volunteers. Accommodation and meals are free. This is a great alternative for those who come to Israel on a tight budget. It is not fancy, but it is a place to stay central to the hub of Tel Aviv and the beach.

During my trip I was extremely fortunate to spend some time with Rabbi Ayala Miron, rabbi of the B’Vat Ha’Ayin congregation in Rosh Ha’ayin. Rabbi Miron had visited my synagogue some time ago, where I had the privilege of talking to her and informing her of my impending trip.

Rabbi Miron and I arranged to meet on one of my free weekends. She picked me up from my hostel and we drove to the service in Rosh Ha’ayin. There we met up with two Reform congregations (one from Boston, the other from Washington) that were also visiting Israel.

The evening spent with Rabbi Miron and these two groups was memorable. Her love of Judaism is wonderful and I felt so blessed to have been part of the evening. I was asked to share a bit about my reason for being in Israel. What an honour that was! (A few of my fellow volunteers told me they were a little envious of what I was about to experience at Congregation B’Vat Ha’Ayin.)

(Sar-El Canada photo)

Three weeks went by in a flash and soon it was time to pack up and return to my life in Toronto. I looked for any reason that would delay my return and enable me to stay in Israel, but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.  But it doesn’t have to end here – and it won’t. I will return to Israel. In fact, I am already looking at dates on my calendar.

I would highly recommend Sar-El for anyone who loves Israel, is on a tight budget, and has some spare time to do something so worthwhile. Israel will welcome you with open arms and she will thank you. sarelcanada.org