To all of my friends and relatives who sent me their good wishes upon hearing that I volunteered for a one week tour of the army, I am now sending a little summary of what this was all about.
Sar-EL, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, stations volunteers on IDF bases across the country. We work in army uniforms and perform non-combat support duties, working alongside regular soldiers, helping Israel shoulder its defensive burdens.
I was introduced to the program through an email from Nefesh B’Nefesh. It’s geared to new olim of all ages to have the opportunity to assist the IDF and give something back to them for all that they do for us. It sounded very exciting to me so after discussing it with Libby (after all, I’ll be away for almost a week) and receiving her support, I immediately signed up for a week, starting Sunday May 6th.
First, I had to send in a completed medical report from my doctor confirming that I was physically and mentally fit to do the necessary work, together with my ID for the army to check out in advance. B’H- no problems there.
Sunday morning, May 6th I headed for Ben Gurion airport where I was to meet the entire group for that week. There were about 100 volunteers gathered. After presenting our papers we were assigned to specific army bases in groups varying between 12-20 in any given group. I, together with 16 others, was assigned to a base in the Negev, somewhere near Be’er Sheva. We were asked not to disclose the exact location or the name of the base. 17 of us, 11 men and 6 women boarded a bus taking us to our base. Also with us was one regular soldier (Sharon), who was to be our Madricha for the entire week. She was 19 years old while we ranged from age 40 to 86. She spoke English (somewhat) and was trained by the army to lead groups of Sar-EL such as ours.
We got to the base around 1pm and after room assignments we went to the dining room for a sumptuous fleishige lunch. After lunch we were ushered to uniform supplies. Without a tape measure the soldier in charge just looked at each of us and said “this is a perfect size for you,” and handed us our army pants, shirt (with TZAHAL insignia) and belt. Believe it or not – mine fit. Others, who were very tall and broad, could not fit into the given shirts- but the army ran out of larger sizes. So they were just given t-shirts.
We were then given 30 minutes to unpack and straighten our beds. The men’s barracks had 3 to a room; the women had 2 to a room.
Lo and behold, to our surprise the rooms were air-conditioned, and the next building which had the bathroom and showers had 4 toilets (3 in working condition) and 3 shower stalls with hot running water. For those volunteers who have done this several times this was a very pleasant surprise – because in previous bases they did not have such luxury.
3;30 – We were marched to work stations- huge warehouses and asked to remove filled duffle bags from the bins, dust the bags and shelves, and restore them in the exact location from where they were removed. We worked for 1 hour.
4:30 – Back to our rooms for shower and relaxation.
6:30 pm – Dinner. Not as fulfilling as lunch, they served (always buffet-style) lots of salads, vegetables, and something that looked like green omelets. Nothing hot to drink but plenty of ice-water on tables.
7:30 pm – Evening activity. Our group met in one large room to get to know each other. Each spoke about himself/herself, and why they enlisted for a week.
It turned out that: we had a husband and wife team, a mother and daughter team, 3 of us came from Israel and all others from chu’l; one from Italy, one from Ireland, 3 from England, and the rest from USA. 3 were not even Jewish, and only 3 of us were Shomrei Shabbat. I was amazed to hear their motives for coming. They had to leave their family, jobs, and pay full flight to get here. They were not wealthy but they put together a year of savings in order to come. Their motive? They loved Israel, and the Jewish people. Most of them had done this before and for one it was the 10th time. It gave me goose-pimples hearing them describe their love and devotion to Israel. It also gave me chizuk and inspiration.
We were informed that this army base is the largest supply base for the entire southern region, including Aza. If war were to break out in Aza the Givati and other infantry units would be sent here to pick up their guns, ammunition and supplies. It is considered a very important base and is therefore protected by the Iron Dome Missile system.
The base has tanks, weapons, ammunition to supply a whole battalion.
9:30 pm – We were exhausted, and so retired for the night. There is a beautiful shul on base, well-stocked with Siddurim, chumashim, talliyot, sefarim and 3 sifrei Torah, but we had no Minyan for Mincha or Ma’ariv.
Monday, May 7.
No minyan in Shul so we davened by ourselves. There were 3 soldiers in there also davening by themselves. When we finished, others began straggling in but we had to leave.
7:30am – breakfast. Omelets, salads, vegetables, cold chocolate milk and chocolate pudding (No coffee).
8:30 – Flag raising ceremony. All soldiers on base lined up in formation, including us. One of us is picked for the honor of raising the flag and stands next to the officer in charge. Believe it or not- I was picked. Some said to our Madricha- “let the Rav do it – it is Kavod HaTorah.” After saluting the Israeli flag, the officer in charge read the news of the day from Galei Tzahal, but our Madricha repeated it to us in English.
Next – work assignments given out. I and one female volunteer (Ruthie), assigned to kitchen. We first had to go to the infirmary to have our hands checked for disease and then given rubber gloves. We worked on making Schnitzels for lunch. We prepared about one thousand pieces – they were delicious but greasy. After I ate I volunteered for dishing out the food at the serving station, giving out the schnitzels – one piece per soldier. If they wanted more they could come back on line with clean plate, but initially, only one piece at a time. Of course I didn’t have the heart to refuse anyone who asked for another piece the first time in line.
After lunch, we heard there was a minyan for mincha. Sure enough there was a large minyan. Since none of us heard Kriat HaTorah in the morning I suggested that we could lain now, and we did, like on a ta’anit Tzibbur. I was the Shaliach Tzibbur and was given the third aliyah. I found out that every day they have a minyan for mincha.
After mincha, I returned to the dining room to clean chairs and tables. It was fun and I enjoyed it. I got to meet the chef and kitchen staff. Upon hearing that I was a Rav, one of them kissed my hand and requested a Beracha. After that, whenever I entered kitchen (which was off-limits to others) I was treated royally and with respect. The Kashrut of the kitchen was extremely well observed and enforced. Everything fleishig was colored red, and milchig blue, Parveh was yellow. It was so different from my experiences in hotel kitchens. The Mashgiach had to watch every worker carefully, but here, it’s not so much a religious issue but a strict army command and regulation. Any soldier who is not careful with the dishes could be severely punished and fined for breaking army discipline.
3:00pm – Kitchen closed so we were off. I took a shower before others arrived (they all worked till 4pm), and relaxed in air conditioned room.
Night Activity – We learned what the different colored Berets represented, what the colored shoulder laces meant and the different insignia for each rank in the armed forces. We were then given, very ceremoniously, our blue shoulder ribbons representing the Sar-EL unit (which we were given to keep, while our uniforms had to be returned at the end)
Tuesday May 8
Assignments were rotated each day.
I was assigned to a warehouse. We were shown an office fully cluttered with folders, boxes, papers and junk. Two of us began going through each piece. We emptied the boxes, and used them for storing clean folders. Folders that had written material were placed in other box for shredding. (the shredding process was done mainly by the women). We got rid of all the junk, swept the room clean and the officer in charge was amazed at the sight of this office. He couldn’t believe that it could look so neat and clean. He personally shook our hand and thanked us.
Night Activity – We learned about “Search and Recover” missions. If a plane goes down and the “black box” needs to be found, they form a straight line, walk shoulder to shoulder over the entire area until found. We practiced that. We were to cover a section of the field, at night in the dark, with no flashlights, and look for a 12 inch rod. Walking in straight line, shoulder to shoulder- sure enough we succeeded (by the way –the black box of a plane is orange and not black!).
That night, the highest ranking officer of the base came to address us. He told us that on May 20 – just 12 days away – the base would be fully inspected by the top army brass. If found unsatisfactory- many heads would roll. If they are given a good rating, many officers would be up for promotion. Therefore, our work here is vitally important and he thanked us for what we have accomplished.
My assignment – Work on rifle inspection.
Of course, we know nothing about rifles. Our job was merely to remove one rifle at a time from the storage rack, bring it to the officer who is an expert on dissembling and re-assembling each one, and then return it to the exact numbered place on the rack. He had one trained chayelet assisting him. She was able to unscrew the butt of the rifle making it easier for him to inspect it internally. If we were not there then she would have to bring it to him from the racks and he himself would have to unscrew the butt. With us there he was able to be more productive during the day. Of course, it wasn’t all work all day. He took the time to show us how to the find the exact target on the rifle eye. These rifles are used by sharpshooters. They were all M-16 rifles from the U.S. After each war, the U.S. discards the guns by selling very cheap to Israel or other countries. About 10% of the rifles were faulty so he either replaced faulty parts or sent them back to factory.
Night Activity – Received our Certificates, & our I.D cards. This was followed by discussion and evaluation of program.
Afterwards, there were 17 sheets of paper; each sheet had one of our names. We were to write something (interesting) about each one in the program. These we kept as souvenirs.
Thursday, May 10.
At flag raising – Senior officer of base spoke. He said, today is Lag BaOmer, which means no more beards allowed. As of Sunday morning, every chayal must be clean shaven and hair cut to army regulations
He then thanked us publicly in front of all chayalim for our contribution of time and work. He said we were an inspiration to the chayalim by doing our work efficiently, enthusiastically and with love. All soldiers then applauded us. It was meaningful and emotional.
9:30- 11:00 – Packed up, cleaned our room, washed floor, and left it spotless for next group arriving Sunday.
11:45 –Early fleishig lunch.
12:30 –Board bus back to Yerushalayim or Tel Aviv.
If anyone interested in joining this program call Howie Mischel at Nefesh B’Nefesh.
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 02 970 4923Rabbi Aharon Ziegler
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