Volunteering For Israel
Volunteers are very important to Israel's economy because we do the work basically anyone can do, which frees up the soldiers to do the tough stuff -- therefore saving Israel tons of money (I think we saved them 4 million just on my base alone that year). The following is about my experience. Hat tip to Gravelrash for suggesting I do this.
I think it was sometime in 2002. Wanting to help, my boyfriend and I attended a "Shop Israel" event in Los Angeles. Merchants from all over the holy land were able to come to a specific building and set up booths selling their wares. Among these booths was a sign reading Volunteers for Israel. Intrigued, we went over to speak with the two people working there. They gave us fliers. BF and I discussed the idea and were fascinated that such a thing existed. Being that neither of us were swimming in cash, the chance to see Israel and have a good portion of it be free seemed ideal. You work from Sunday to Thursday, food and board are provided but then the weekends are yours (and on your dime) to do as you please. But first you must have an interview. We called and made our appointments. My meeting was with Paul. It was his job to tell me what do expect and to make me realize this wasn't going to be a country club experience. If I was expecting great accommodations, terrific food -- go someplace else. The work would be steady but not terribly hard. After I sufficiently convinced him that I wasn't a debutante (or a member of Hamas), I was in.
A friend suggested we time our trip for Israel's 55th birthday (May, 2003), so we did. We then got an email from our wonderful Sar-El rep, Pam, asking us if we wanted to partake in an offer to volunteers who were going to be there over Yom Ha’atzmaut to pay a little extra and spend the holiday at the soldiers' resort in Ashkelon. BF and I looked at each other and essentially said in unison, "Hell yeah!" Of course, don't get too excited about the word "resort" -- it's a resort by comparison to the barracks, but it seemed more like your average college dorm room. More on that later though.
So the big day came. We arrived in Israel, got picked up at the airport by Pam and were immediately taken to a communications base near Tel Aviv. Guess who was there -- Paul -- who did my interview! So we already had someone we knew there, which was a nice treat. I was put in a females-only barrack with three other women (all from Canada). BF had the same, though his roomies were a mix of US and Canada. The bathrooms were down a path, but at least there was a coffee machine (mochachinos!) in the common area. We arrived late at night, so first order of business was getting some sleep after traveling for a long time on planes. The next morning, we were introduced to our young Madricha (this is the name given to the army rep who acts as a sort of camp counselor) and taken to the mess hall for breakfast. Afterwards, we were given our uniform and a tour of our part of the base.
We were then taken to our work areas. I worked in two different ones (over the three weeks). First, I worked fixing helmets. I scraped the icky stuff off, repaired holes with this substance called Bondo and then painted them. Of course, I just described three different stations. But you spend all day doing just one of those activities. Very much assembly-line type work. Also there, I did a bit of what BF did, which was scraping paint off radio chassis but he also cleaned shock absorbers for radio mounts. The other thing I did was I spent time in a warehouse, rewiring the radio headsets (you are trained in a matter of minutes--it's not hard believe it or not) that go inside the helmets. It's not the most fascinating work, but it's not difficult either and it gives you the chance to chat with and get to know the other volunteers who are there from all over the world.
Your average day was the following: Mornings began with a trek to the mess hall (after the mochachinos in the common area). After, we'd go for flag raising and then off to your work station. Halfway through, there'd be a 15 minute break. Trek back for lunch then back to work. Again another 15 minute break and then you're off for the evening. Evenings occasionally had a program for us to participate in.
Meals are kosher, with breakfast and dinner the same, usually egg in some form, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheeses, bread... maybe some pickles and olives. Lunch is the big meal, with some kind of meat (either brisket or chicken), along with soup, hummus and vegetables (I became VERY fond of an eggplant mixture).
We worked for one day before taking off for Ashkelon, the soldiers' resort that lies on the Mediterranean coastline. We stayed for Israel's Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron). Prior to landing at Ashkelon, we met up with another base. There, many volunteers and soldiers took part in a ceremony honoring the fallen soldiers. We stood for a half hour in the sweltering heat, wearing our berets (that we had to run around our base to earn) that were on loan for the occasion. Later, at Ashkelon, several of us snuck off to the beach area. We thought we were breaking some intense rule by doing this, but the following day, we found our madricha and several others lying out on the sand. We stayed the following day as well at Ashkelon for Israel's 55th Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut).
Once we left Ashkelon, we headed towards Jerusalem. Before we arrived, we went on a tour of the Jewish National Forrest. This is the place where they plant the trees that you buy for Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, when a child is born or in someone's memory when they have passed. There we learned about the ancient aqueducts. It was with these, waaaaaay back when, that people were able to move water to use to help them live. We were then on our own to enjoy the weekend. As a person doing Sar-El, you are given discounts on hotels, tours, etc. The smile it brought to faces knowing that someone cared enough to come help them (especially when we were there) was so gratifying. While in Jerusalem, we visited Ben Yahouda Street (shopping!) -- and we even ran into one of the merchants we bought from back in Los Angeles! It was a happy reunion. We took a tour (that sadly -- commenting on the lack of people there -- only had one other person besides us) that included seeing the Memorial to the Holocaust -- Yad Va Shem, Masada, a hike at Ein Gedi -- and seeing a ton of Ibex on the way to the falls and later swimming in the Dead Sea. The water was fantastic. You just lean backwards in it, and immediately you're floating without any effort. We loved it.
But the most amazing experience was when I got to see the Western Wall. I'm not a religious person, but the feelings that washed over me in that moment... words fail. I tear up just writing this. Amazingly, you can take a tour of the tunnels underneath the Wall, with a guide -- I highly recommend this. I took a video (tacky, I realize, but I have friends who are afraid to fly who I wanted to see this) of the entire tour. Fantastic. There's far more I could tell, but maybe that's another post. Back to the base come Sunday morning to report for work.
During the following week, BF concentrated on disassembling radio chassis outside (and his Israeli tan) while I worked inside -- in the electronics section -- re-wiring radio headsets (as I said above), installing them in the soft helmet (which I also assembled with foam insides) that are then installed in the hard helmet I painted the previous week.
We took other trips on the following weekends, all of which were simply amazing. But during the second weekend, there was a bombing in Jerusalem. One of our fellow volunteers had spent the weekend in Jerusalem with his friend, a sharpshooter instructor with the IDF. The night before, he watched his friend kick around a soccer ball with his two young children. The next morning, his friend took a bus to work. He saw a young guy get on, dressed as a Yeshiva Boucher. Something did not seem right. The sharpshooter pointed his gun at the terrorist's head and was about to pull the trigger when the vile monster detonated his bomb. Our pal's friend miraculously survived -- but is now a quadriplegic. Our pal was pretty freaked out. We all gathered in the TV room to watch constant coverage on one of the 24-hour news networks, hungry for any and all info. After several hours of this, a soldier approached Sahbra (since she is fluent in Hebrew) and asked how much longer we were planning to watch the news. We wondered why. Apparently the soldiers wanted to watch a video, Rambo, that they had picked up. We couldn't believe they wouldn't want to watch the news. This is when he taught us a very valuable lesson. This was huge news to us but to them, it was a daily part of their lives. They needed a release and watching movies, etc., was how they kept sane. We vacated immediately, perhaps a bit more sensitive and a little wiser.
We made friends from around the world, several of whom, like Sahbra, we are still close. I can't recommend the experience enough.