A few days ago, I completed a week serving as a volunteer on an IDF reservist base in the Negev. This wasn’t the typical type of volunteer gig you might expect a retired grandfather to attend, such as helping out in an army kitchen or folding recently laundered uniforms. Although those are honorable and helpful ways of supporting our soldiers, I actually spent my week, along with seven other grandpa buddies of mine, doing very physical maintenance work on tank transporters, reorganizing a warehouse full of combat gear for reserve soldiers and working on a security fence surrounding a major military installation near Gaza. We ranged in age from 64 to 83, we worked full days and we earned the respect and thanks of the soldiers and officers we interacted with throughout the week.
The program I participated in was originally conceived by General Aharon Davidi (z’’l), a former commander of the paratroops, as a way of providing volunteer laborers to replace army reservists called up during Operation Peace For Galilee in 1982. There were 650 from the US who answered the call back then. At the urging of those volunteers who saw the value in, and wanted to perpetuate, the program, the following year Sar-El (the Hebrew acronym meaning ‘Service to Israel’ שירות לישראל), the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, was born.
Over the past 37 years, Sar El has evolved and grown, now welcoming volunteers from 30 countries and sending them exclusively to IDF bases throughout Israel to assist our soldiers in numerous ways. These volunteers are in uniform and perform a wide range of non-combat logistical support duties. We proudly work alongside the IDF soldiers, sleep in the barracks and eat in the mess halls on the bases where we are assigned as we help Israel shoulder its defense burden. The jobs are incredibly varied- I’ve performed maintenance on armored personnel carriers, cleared bunkers on the Syrian border, upgraded combat medical kits, picked parts for ship repairs – the IDF has a million jobs waiting to be done. Its reported that 160,000 have come to volunteer through 2010 and some 5,000 are now participating each year. The volunteers are comprised of both men and women and there is a healthy mix of Jews and righteous gentiles who typically come for 3 weeks at a time to help the State of Israel. This awakened me to the fact that the Jewish People are not alone. We have committed friends and supporters around the world who are very willing to use their financial resources and precious vacation time to physically come and help us. Many of them come year after year. My very first time as a Sar-El volunteer was in 1987 and I periodically came over the years, fortunate to have worked on a variety of army bases large and small, as well as having been assigned to navy and air force bases.
But what about our olim? Does Sar-El have volunteers from within Israel? The answer is definitively YES! Their website (www.sar-el.org) even maintains an honor roll of some 275 volunteers who have completed the aliyah process and continue to volunteer. But in truth, not nearly enough olim know about this program. Most olim are arriving at an age past that for mandatory military service. Many of them have come with young families, some are older singles or frequently grandparents coming to live near their children. Getting settled here surely takes time and it’s hard to wrap your head around volunteering at that point. But in speaking to many olim over the years about Sar-El, I’ve noted that once past the early stress of klita, settling children and finding work, there are many who have expressed a desire to find a way to contribute and give back. With so many coming from abroad showing incredible dedication to and love of our country, how could we do any less? By working on an army base, Olim are offered a unique opportunity to deepen their knowledge of an important component of Israeli life, raising the morale of the soldiers with whom they will work, and at the same time make a meaningful contribution to their new homeland.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written that “…voluntary work is….an expression of shared responsibility for common good. It is personal engagement in pursuit of an ideal. It is active citizenship of the highest order.” I very much agree with this statement and it is for that reason that when I completed aliyah, nearly a decade ago at age 57, I decided to make Sar-El volunteering an annual responsibility, something I hope to continue participating in for as long as I am able.