On Nov. 11th, I returned home from three weeks in the army - the Israeli Army. For two years since this round of troubles started up in Israel, my wife and I watched and saw how Israels economy was being hurt by the fighting.
As supporters of Israel we sent checks to different charities, but we also spoke about how we wanted to do something more concrete. We found a program called Sar-El, which comes from the Hebrew letters in the words Service to Israel.
The Sar-El program takes volunteers from all over the world, Jew and non-Jew, for two or three weeks on an army base in a non-combat area to do tasks that untrained and somewhat older people can do. With the support of my wife and children, and our friends who promised to help with the kids, I signed up for three weeks.
I arrived in Israel on Oct. 21 and was taken to a soldiers hostel in Jaffa for the night before being assigned a base. In the evening I went out with some of my new army pals and searched for dinner. We found a nice restaurant nearby, and were immediately introduced to Israels new reality. At the door to the restaurant was a guard who opened the ladies purses and ran a metal detection wand over each person.
In the morning my group was assigned to a base in the south near Beersheva. We were issued army work uniforms, boots and a hat. Next we were introduced to the army lunch of chicken, potato and some small Middle Eastern salads. This was repeated daily with only the style of chicken and type of starch changing.
After lunch we were split into smaller groups and sent off to work. This was a supply and truck depot for two reserve brigades. One group stuffed duffel bags with the things a reservist would need in the first three days of his call-up. I was put with a group of six men, all of whom were at least 12 years older than me, and we were to unroll, clean and re-roll a warehouse of large truck bags.
The army has a fleet of large trucks that are used to haul tanks, artillery, etc. close to the battlefield and then offload them. When these trucks are not used, they are put into these baggies and sealed up until needed again. Each bag weighs more than 200 pounds, and as the baby of the group I was pulling and lifting a lot.
We did this day after day, slowly making progress with the rearranging of our warehouse. In the evenings we would get a lecture on some aspect of Israel, its people and the ecology of the desert. But absolutely nothing regarding politics. The Israel Defense Forces, like the United States military, is nonpolitical.
On Friday we were given liberty until noon Sunday. In Israel the work-week is Sunday to Friday, with Saturday off for Shabbat. I went with a group to Jerusalem where I was going to stay with an old friend. Coming into Jerusalem for the first time in 22 years felt strange because the old landmarks were all hidden by new construction as the city expanded.
Saturday we went into the Old City, which made my friend uneasy, but I had to see some things for myself. Coming in the Jaffa Gate the first thing I noticed was the almost complete absence of tourists. As we went down the main path the shopkeepers almost begged us to come into their stores.
After Shabbat we went to a friends house in the town of Rishon Ltzion. The town was opening up for the post-Shabbat shopping and dining. It looked very busy, with people waiting to get into the stores and restaurants. It appears CNNs view of life in Israel - that everyone is living in fear and in shelters - is very wrong.
During the next two weeks I had a chance to visit malls (in Hebrew its canyon) in four different cities. They were always busy, and people were buying clothes, shoes and appliances. They were crowding into Office Depot, Kids R Us/Toys R Us, Ace Hardware, and Tower Records. They ate at McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Our most meaningful workday happened when Sar-El and the Homeland Command brought most of the more than 100 volunteers to some warehouses near Gan Yavne. There we were brought to boxes of youth-sized gas masks. Our job was to open each box to check the contents. Many of the boxes had to be replaced because the parents had covered them with stickers of Mickey Mouse and friends to make them less frightening.
We were told that every Israeli, Arab and Jew, man, woman and child is issued a gas mask kit. Newborns are sent home from the hospital with special bassinets that have blowers to suck the air in through the filter.
During our last week on base the Sar-El commander, Gen. Aharon Davidi, IDF ret., thanked us for coming, and asked us to bring home the message that Israel is alive and needs tourists. He went on to say that Israel has dangerous sections just like New York City. After having taken the inner-city buses and the train and shopped in the canyons, I agree with the general.
s we left the base for our homes in Canada, Australia, and the U.S., we all agreed that the three weeks was well worth it. The Jews in the group all felt we had strengthened our ties to the country, while the Christians in the group expressed a stronger feeling for the country, its history and its need to continue to exist.
I plan to continue to volunteer with Sar-El, hopefully on an annual basis. If you would like more information of the program you can check out the Web site: www.sar-el.org
(Larry Waxman is a Martinez resident.)
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