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 if you asked me if 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’d say no way.

I joined the program last May with little advance notice and absolutely no idea of what to expect, leaving 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. In the process of getting there, those in my group helped perform decidedly unglamorous non-combat functions, the idea being to help, if only in a tiny way, 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 late last year) that I even found out about Sar-El. There are two and three-week programs too, so my Sunday-Thursday journey was more Sar-El lite – although the work did involve considerably more muscle than is exerted typing at a keyboard. On board were Yankees, Canadians and a lone Frenchman. 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 who loves contemporary France so much he lives in Madrid, and who had done  Sar-El programs previously. 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 speaking French creating 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: had I been in the mood to goof off (not that there was time) I woudn’t have dared in front of him.

Then there was Andrea, an American living in Kfar Saba and one of whose daughters is currently serving in the IDF, and without whose charger my iPhone would have been a paperweight. And can’t forget gentle Susan from Tallahassee, who celebrated her 65th birthday while on the program, or Abe, an unflappable Torontonianwho regaled us with his impersonations of Shimon Peres and mischievous tales of stealth-ordering Dominos’ pizza for his figure-challenged ex-wife. Good times!

The coolest place on the base by far…

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 8AM 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, in our case two super nice female Israeli soldiers. 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 disused 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 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 madrahot, Noa, escorted us on a tour of the tank maintenance area, which was both very cool and rather 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 on carbohydrates perhaps, but there was no meal that did not come accompanied with 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.

One day I spotted the discipline officer eating alone, but he allowed me to join him. When I meekly suggested that the base should provide freshly-squeezed orange juice for the troops in the morning, he just laughed.

I had packed lots of snacks, which was 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 (no Smirk Bars, though) 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 completely but gave them a good laugh.

On sum though, spending three years in the army as most Israelis are required to do is no laughing matter, and a duty practically unimaginable for most pampered Americans. Sar-El offers not only a window on this vital element of Israeli life but also the chance to climb through it and lend a hand, if only for a short while. But 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 if you’ve paid attention, at a pile of tank parts you’ve just buffed and polished.

Other contours: in the dusty corner of the barracks where I stayed, two young soldiers were quartered in the adjoining room. For three days running I heard pop music coming from their space, and caught sight of them at night in plainclothes darting about different parts of the base. I didn’t get their names and their English was minimal but they were nice enough to let me use their outlet since my quarters had no electricity. Their room was a complete and poetic teenage mess. Being twice their age, it seemed to me these guys were in some sort of summer camp, gleefully away from their families and just hanging out the way adults have to fork over a chunk of change to some resort to have to pretend to do.

But I was wrong. On the final morning, for a split second I saw them in full uniform as they left the barracks, heavy gear on their backs in the heat, big guns slung across their shoulders. They’re in the Israeli army, not summer camp, and for a few days, for no more than several hours really, so were we. Proudly.

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