Israel’s survival: It’s not a given

It is late September and my allotted vacation for the beginning of November is looming.  There are plenty of projects here at home to complete or places within driving distance worthy of revisiting.  What shall I do… where shall I go?

I have had the privilege to have extensively traveled for both work and pleasure.  This has included several trips to Israel, and my thoughts now consider a return trip.   The marvels of science and the accomplishments of mankind allow an aircraft to lift us to the other side of the planet… but the dreaded full day of being confined in a tube above earth and the associated jet lag also loom.   However, with my daughter having recently made Aliyah  (residency in Israel), the scale tips towards making the trek and paying her a visit.   But my daughter works daily and is established with her friends and community.   I’ve seen most of the historic and tourist sites within Israel.  I cannot sit idly in the hotel awaiting the next lavish breakfast.  What shall I do with my time?  

And then it hits me…  had I not over the years thought of joining a volunteer program?  To give a voyage a sense of purpose, to make free time an opportunity for giving?   To turn the screw from a relaxing or sightseeing experience and of benefit only to myself;  to one of being of service and value to others.  A quick internet search takes me to Sar-El and Volunteers For Israel, leading organizations in providing volunteer programs on an army base in Israel.  

My wife Deanna is ‘on-board’, and the wheels move quickly to apply and get through the approval process.  The literature and representatives try to educate us about the realities that await and otherwise persuade us from not going.  This vetting appears necessary to give low expectations and otherwise ensure we are motivated with a proper purpose.  We leave with a sense of adventure, with no expectations, not knowing where we will serve, or what we shall be doing.    There is also the skeptical side of me… is this a program with an ulterior purpose?  Was this simply another way for the tourism bureaucrats to promote Israel?  The answers would come…. .

And away we go…. landing at Ben Gurion Airport… walking out of baggage claim and into the expansive terminal … and there, there to one side of the terminal is a large gathering, some wearing Sar-El shirts or hats.  We clearly identify this as our immediate destination.  Despite the effects of the long journey, a sense of relief and joy comes over me, knowing  now that this is an established organized program, with many others arriving from throughout the world to participate.  We are of varying ages and religious beliefs.  We are of a common mind-set… to be of assistance to others, to Israel.  This is great!

Over the next few hours we are divided up into smaller groups of about a dozen, introduced to our ‘mad-ra-ha’ and whisked off in a bus towards our destination, an army base somewhere in Israel.   From the outset, I sense that our ma-dra-ha, a soldier who is assigned to the group to guide us for the next two weeks, is a special chap.   His name is Jonathan, and even at his young 20 years of age, posses the intelligence, skills and spark to lead a group of twelve who are each more than twice his age.

Over the next two weeks, members of our group bond.  We live and volunteer our time on base.  We have two days a week off-base to visit Israel, friends or family.  Our efforts on base focus on assisting with the reconditioning of communications equipment, such as speakers and antennas.  

We experience life on the base.  It is not lavish by any means.  We are bunked in rudimentary barracks, four to a room, on cots, men and woman apart.  The bathroom facilities are a brief walk away.   No one complains.

We live among and provide service with the soldiers of the IDF.  They are a young energetic lot, and reflect the diversity of Israel, coming themselves as, or as children of, immigrants. 
My voyage and participation has invoked strong feelings of both of fulfillment and enlightenment.

Just as we express our appreciation to those that serve in the IDF, we are in turn appreciated.  Our presence imports a sense of ‘You Do Not Stand Alone’ to the soldiers.  And, in some small way, the tasks we are assigned are tangible service to the Country.  This provides me a selfish sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.  This was, after all, to be a trip for the soul, and it has exceeded my expectations.   I do not know if I will ever be able to travel again without a meaningful purpose.

On the other hand, my eyes have opened to Israel’s reality.   There are those that say, when Israel is confronted by hostility, “Oh, don’t worry, they can take care of themselves.”   


What I have failed to mention thus far is the condition of this base.  Although I am told this may not the case on other bases, at this locale buildings are for the most part old and dilapidated.  There is debris, trash and abandoned equipment everywhere.    I cannot help but believe that this is a result of limited funds or resources for infrastructure and maintenance.   You would never see this kind of condition on a US base.  Teams of volunteers could be devoted for clean up and maintenance without making much of a dent.  Clearly, they want or need our volunteer services for higher priority tasks.   This program is not merely about enhancing public relations or tourism.  There is a need.

I cannot understate the reality of need for support in Israel from the world,  from you.  Israel’s survival requires all of our involvement, no matter what form it may take.  Our support can come from a myriad of efforts …   donations, investments, tourism, writing to our elected representatives, local participation in supportive programs, and, yes, volunteering in Israel.  

Please don’t miss an opportunity to help others.  To help Israel.  It will be a benefit to your soul and have a direct impact on improving the lives of others.

Letters to the editor: Garcetti’s gaffe, Sar-El, revenge and more

Existential Offensive

Excellent piece, David Suissa (“Revenge is Not Enough,” July 4). Shame and humiliation are indeed useful weapons in that region, and it must be part of the political arsenal, same as the appropriate military options. God and faith must be part of the conversation, the debate, the argument, the negotiation, the public response. The aim is not simply to punish, but to prevent further attacks. Clearly, the previous strategies have not succeeded.

Jonathan Freund via

Seems unlikely these killers can be shamed into nonviolence, but why not try? Peace will not come until all sides see more advantage to nonviolence than violence.

John Thomas via

Crude Critic

Dennis Prager is right in criticizing Mayor Eric Garcetti’s use of crudity in toasting the L.A. Kings (“L.A. Mayor and America’s Decline,” June 27). We don’t need a common Joe Doakes to relate to as a leader. I prefer an official who dresses the part, acts the part, talks the part, and conducts himself in a manner of respect. Using an analogy, a college professor should wear a jacket and tie and not try to look like one of the students.

Chuck Colton, Sherman Oaks

Common Ground

After years of disagreeing with virtually everything that he has written in the Journal, I was pleasantly surprised by Marty Kaplan’s article “How to Organize Your Books” (July 4). His comments resonated with me and were both informative and amusing.

Seeing him in a somewhat different light, I will make an effort to be more open to his extreme leftist views. But I am not overly optimistic in this regard.

Don Kaiserman, Santa Monica

One State, Two Experiences

David Bender’s piece “‘Baby Boomerangers’ Head Back to Israel” (July 4) brought back some fond memories of my own volunteer service in the Sar-El unit of the IDF in 1992 at Ashdod Naval Base, and in 1994 at Telnof Air Force Base. I wish to take exception, however, to interviewee Diane Horowitz’s comment that Sar-El is humanitarian rather than paramilitary in its focus. While she participated in humanitarian activities, at Ashdod, I helped to repair PBRs (River Patrol Boats). At Telnof, I was tasked with cleaning, locking and loading M-16s, Uzis and Galils in the Neshkiya (weapons arsenal). While I am as humanitarian as anyone, I did so in defense of the state of Israel. It is also worth noting that, a few years ago, the IDF approved the Sar-El unit as an acceptable alternative for Israelis living abroad who must fulfill their mandatory military service.

Marc Yablonka, Burbank

Do-Right Rabbis

I am so proud of the Reform rabbis, informed by Jewish values, who have taken action toward making our city workable and improving our quality of life by bringing our communities together under the banner of social justice (“California Reform Jews Succeed in Push to Fund Housing,” July 4). Through Reform CA, an initiative of the California Reform Movement and One LA, a community-based organizing initiative,

Rabbi Ken Chasen and Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Leo Baeck Temple, Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue and Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, co-director of the URJ’s Just Congregations, are providing the leadership to make this effort a reality.
Their vision: “By creating a greater quality of life for some, we are creating a greater quality of life for us all.”

Peachy Levy via email

Hey, Goodell!

In your column on the meaning of Hebrew words (June 27), you featured the word Adam, as meaning human skin, or redskin. It seems to me that a perfect solution to the controversy over using the name “Redskins” for the Washington football team would be to change the name from the Washington Redskins to the Washington Adams. That way the team would still have the redskins meaning, but it would now have a politically correct name of Adams. It is also not a coincidence that two U.S. President Adams (John and John Quincy) served in Washington, D.C., so the Washington Adams is doubly appropriate.

Paul Kovich, Los Angeles

The living dream

Artillery rounds launch from Nahal Sorek, an Israeli army base southwest of Jerusalem. The shells land with a series of distant, muted thuds. The artillery brigade, Amud Haesh, named for the torch of fire that carried Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years, is practicing for a possible engagement in the north with Hezbollah or Syria.

However, Nahal Sorek, where I am stationed for two weeks, is much closer to the Gaza Strip. I have come here as a volunteer, leaving the pleasures of domesticity in Los Angeles to experience life in the Israeli army.

When I was first told that I would be in the Ashkelon area, I was excited at the prospect of being near the action, where my assistance would truly benefit the Israelis, but I knew that I could not mention this to my wife, Barbara, or to my parents. They would worry; so I did not give them any details on the geography of the camp.

As it turns out, Nahal Sorek is sufficiently far from Gaza that no Qassam rockets have ever landed here, though they have landed in Ashkelon and, of course, in Sderot, which receives daily rocket fire.

I signed up for Sar-El, an international program affiliated with the U.S.-based group, Volunteers for Israel, through which participants from all over the world travel to Israel to help out the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for up to three weeks. I spent the first three days of the program stuffing night-vision goggles and extra uniforms into duffel bags at a supply depot. Apparently, during the war two summers ago against Hezbollah, the Israeli soldiers lacked this equipment.

As I chat with one of the other volunteers, an F-16 flies overhead. Gordon Gibson, a Canadian, tells me that he recruited 47 members of his Evangelical church in Camrose, Alberta, to visit Israel a year or so ago. Gordon and his fellow congregants paid for the visit by building several houses in Alberta and selling them. In that previous trip, Gordon got married under a chuppah in a Bedouin tent on Pentecost.

While many of the volunteers in the program , like Gordon, have previously visited Israel for sightseeing, weddings or bar mitzvahs, we are now here to give back to the Jewish state, to show our appreciation through our sweat.

The base is spartan. There are no showerheads or curtains, no locks on the bathroom stalls, no napkins or spoons in the mess hall and no chairs in the barracks, where we sleep three to a room on cots without pillows. Each room, a prefab unit a bit larger than a jail cell, is made of what appears to be plasterboard, and the walls are quite thin.

The nine rooms are arranged like a horseshoe around a common area strewn with sand, a reflection of the base’s proximity to the Negev Desert. In this courtyard of sorts, covered by a canvas tent, we have a tank of water and plastic chairs, where we assemble for meetings before every meal and evening activity. We also have a small clubhouse with a coffee maker and a satellite TV that does not work.

In front of the barracks are an Israeli flag and four flags for the brigade, a black-and-red shield adorned with three artillery shells and a pair of exploding orange sparks. The crude rendering of the bursts reminds one of a cloud in a “Batman” episode with the caption, “Pow!” The illustration gives the flag somewhat of a comical air.

But there is nothing comical about the epaulets we have earned after our third day and now wear on our army uniforms. The epaulets are blue ribbons inscribed with Hebrew words, written in white, that read, “Meetnadev [or volunteer] Sar-El.”

The madrichot, the program’s den mothers, Yaara Benbenishty and Techiya (pronounced Tree-a) Granot, two young women who have spent time in the United States and speak English like Americans, say we deserve our epaulets for our hard work and dedication over the past few days.

I am pleased that I’ve passed the first test, something I failed to do on a similar trip in 1990, when I enrolled in Marva, the equivalent of two months of basic training in the army for non-Israelis. At that time, though I finished first in a sprint up a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee and did more pullups than all but one other member of my unit, I was battling a deep depression. When I injured my knee, I left the program midsession.

I recall that King David, the greatest of all Jewish warriors, also may have suffered from depression, even of a psychotic variety. As he wrote in Psalm 41, “All that hate me whisper together against me: Against me do they devise my hurt. An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him.”

While my life cannot match the sublimity of David’s, I have wanted to atone for my past failure. I tried to sign up again for Marva, but an Israeli official in New York told me that the program is only for people up to the age of 28, not 42-year-olds like me.

He recommended Sar-El, a program with no age limitation. I got the application for Volunteers for Israel, had an interview with a local liaison, paid an $80 fee and prepared for my journey.

The clearest sign that I am handling Sar-El is that I am getting up each day at 6 a.m., instead of noon, as is my normal habit.

My olive-green IDF uniform has a tear on the side, and my shirt pockets bulge with sunglasses, a disposable camera and a notepad, but I feel crisp, well-rested and strong. I am the youngest man in my program. The vast majority of the other volunteers are retired, and nearly all the men have served in the military.

My roommate, Dave Trageser, is a Vietnam veteran. A non-Jew and Green Party member, he wears a Red Sox cap and has a Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv.