Volunteering in Israel

Ian Sadinsky, Special to The CJN


Was it midlife angst? A longing for a new adventure? A clever means to escape the Canadian winter? Or a desire to connect with Israel in a new way?

Whatever the reason, when my Ottawa friends Jonathan and Janet Isserlin, having just returned from their first Sar-El Assignment in January 2013, asked me if I would join them the following year, I immediately said “Yes, count me in.” Sar-El is the Hebrew acronym for “Sherut l’Yisrael” – service to Israel.

Having already visited Israel six times, I wanted to be more than a tourist in the future. This time, I wanted to serve in any way I could in Israel.

Over the next couple of months, I visited the Sar-El website (www.sarelcanada.org), learned all about the organization – it was founded in 1982 by the late Israeli general, Aharon Davidi, – and filled out the application forms. On preliminary acceptance, I underwent an in-person interview with a former Sar-El participant to determine my personal suitability.

One intriguing question was, “How would you like to take orders from 19- and 20-year-old soldiers?”

I quickly answered, “I would love it.”

And my application was approved.

While booking flights, clearing my work schedule and arranging weekend accommodation (volunteers work from Sunday to Thursday so that there are free days for tours and visits), I was peppered with questions from family and friends. Are you sure you want to do this? Yes. Will it be dangerous? No. Will it be physically demanding? I don’t know. Do you get a uniform? Yes. And the most frequently asked question – can you send us a picture of you in uniform (the Sar-El “money shot”)? If and when I can.

On Feb. 24, I arrived  at Ben Gurion Airport and was whisked off to my base in central Israel. I thought that, on arrival, I would be taken to a military tailor where I would be custom fitted for a uniform.  WRONG!  I was handed an army bomber jacket, a belt and a Sar-El cap  to provide me with some semblance of a uniform for my first morning of flag-raising. On my second day, boxes of odd-sized shirts and pants were placed in the middle of our special Sar-El compound and we were instructed to find something that fit.

That initial experience taught me two quick lessons: first, that I was in Israel to work, not to pose for pictures (although we eventually did); and second, how important a uniform can be for building a team.

And what a team we were! Thirty-three people from seven countries (eight Canadians) ranging in age from 18 to 91. Four married couples (men’s and women’s quarters are separate), including Montrealer Jack Bordan, the former head of Sar-El Canada, and his wife, Sylvia, active octogenarians volunteering for the umpteenth time.

Leading us were our madrichot (leaders), Elizabeth and Baillie (also a Canadian) – full-time Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers, smart, organized, personable, creative and, as advertised, 19 and 20 years old.

On a typical day, breakfast was at 7:15 a.m., followed by flag-raising at 8 a.m. After flag-raising, our madrichot would report the “news of the day” – military, Israel and the world – and review our work assignments.

At 8:30, the workday began. Jonathan and I were assigned to sort medical supplies, like syringes and tracheal tubes. Expired equipment was set aside for training purposes; the rest was sorted by expiry date, counted and repackaged, eventually to be included in medical kits for military and field hospitals, disaster relief zones, and even refugee camps.

A senior IDF officer told us that Sar-El saves the Israeli military $12 million (US) a year. In a typical year, Sar-El provides about 4,000 volunteers, with Canadians averaging about 150 a year (third after France and the United States).

Lunch, the best meal of the day, began at 11:45 a.m., and work recommenced at 1 p.m., and went until 4.  Before dinner at 5:45, participants relaxed, jogged or walked around parts of the base, showered or grabbed some well-earned rest.

Evening programs were led by the madrichot. We learned about the Israeli military, the history of Israel, and even some Hebrew. After 8:30 p.m., people watched TV (there is no Internet access), listened to music, chatted, or simply crashed.

Accommodations are spartan – six to eight beds in a room, with limited storage space. There are separate men’s and women’s latrines, with hot water at a premium. But comforts of home are soon forgotten as participants realize that the most important part of Sar-El is the people.

As a professional writer, I spent a lot of my time learning people’s individual stories. The 91-year-old who had flown fighter planes in the World War II; the two lifelong friends whose first military experiences were in Viet Nam; the three young men using Sar-El as an entrée to full-time IDF service; the woman who had never heard of Israel until she came on Sar-El (now back for the sixth time); the retired executives adding “sweat equity” to their financial contributions to Israel.

One special day, we were transported to another base to help pack Passover rations for lone soldiers (IDF members without family in Israel or far removed from them).  A reservist captain told me, “Sar-El people are special. You pay to come to Israel to volunteer. We appreciate that.”

I heard that same sentiment from soldiers and civilians on our base – appreciation, respect and recognition that the people of Israel are not alone.

Through every Sar-El story, there was a leitmotif – the survival of the State of Israel – old and young, regulars and rookies, full-time soldiers and part-time volunteers, working together to build and protect a land of which our forebears could only dream.

Two weeks is a short time in a nation’s history. But as a first-time Sar-El volunteer, I can say for my two weeks – mission accomplished.