Editors Note: Perri and Ira Plitt are retirees, originally from New York and now living in Boca Raton, Florida. They recently completed their second stint as Sar-El volunteers for Israel. They are also my dear machatunim.
My wife, Perri, and I recently returned from a trip to Israel. Although many people travel to Israel, most are not aware of the Sar-El program and the wonderful opportunities it provides to help the Jewish homeland, to get to know individual soldiers, and to meet interesting people from all over the globe.
Sar-El is the Hebrew acronym meaning service for Israel and is part of the organization Volunteers for Israel. The program originated from practical need.
During the summer of 1982, in the midst of the First Lebanon War, the majority of able-bodied men were called up for army reserve duty, leaving entire farms with crops ready for harvest unattended and on the verge of being lost for the season. Dr. Aharon Davidi, a”h, the former head of the IDF. Paratroopers and Infantry Corps was moved by the farmers’ distress and sent a recruitment team to the United States. Within a few weeks, some 650 volunteers arrived in Israel to lend their support through volunteer labor. Inspired by the success of that endeavor, Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, was founded in the spring of 1983 as a non-profit, non-political organization.
The Sar-El program is not a luxury vacation. We were given uniforms upon our arrival at an IDF base. Then men and women move into separate dormitories, four to eight to a room. There are no joint accommodations for married couples. Picture your summers in sleepaway camp with bunks and army cots. If you are lucky enough to be placed on a deluxe base, there may be air conditioning.
Meals are taken in the dining room with the soldiers. Breakfast and dinner are usually dairy and salads, while lunch is the main meal of the day, generally chicken. Like summer camp, you will probably make friends with others and form lasting relationships. Unlike summer camp, you will be working with a purpose – for the benefit of Israel.
Uniforms cannot be taken off base. Volunteers are responsible for their own accommodations Thursday evening through Sunday morning. Different programs and cultural events are offered during the week.
Individual jobs include cleaning and restocking medical field packs, cleaning and refurbishing communications equipment, sanding and repainting protective headgear, and repairing tanks. The type of base determines the type of work.
While some tasks seem menial, like filling a huge sack with expired batteries for disposal, all contribute to the “big picture” of helping the Israeli army. In our particular case, the commander and soldiers in our area kept relaying how appreciative they were. The commander wanted the dedication and hard work of the volunteers to serve as role models and provide inspiration.
One of the soldiers we met had been in an elite combat unit. After suffering an injury, he became a Sar-El madrich (leader). He said he had never given a moment’s thought into what went into the packing of the 80 lb. backpack he took into the field. However, watching us clean and check each item gave him a whole new prospective and an appreciation for how each small piece contributes to the success of the whole.
Soldiers expressed confusion as to why we would leave our comfortable American homes to volunteer on a base. Sar-El volunteers choose to volunteer as an expression of unity and support for our brothers and sisters in Israel. We want to serve, albeit in a small – but we hope significant – way. We look forward to volunteering for Israel in the future.Ira Plitt