A vacation of hard work and satisfaction

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The volunteers come from all walks of life, from all over the world. They come prepared to do work, hard work. They might be laboring in the fields, building roads, doing laundry, working in a kitchen, painting curbs or sweeping streets. They have all come to Israel to be part of Sar-El: Service for Israel. They arrive ready to roll up their sleeves and donate their most valuable resource: their time and energy.

Sar-El is an organization born out of desperation and necessity. In the summer of 1982, the crops were ripe in the Golan Heights, but the farms were low on manpower. Many settlers had been called to Army duty for Israel’s Peace for Galilee operation. Retired Brig. Gen. Dr. Aharon Davidi sent some friends to the United States to solicit physical help. More than 600 volunteers answered Israel’s call for help. Since then more than 100,000 volunteers from more than 30 countries have participated in the volunteer program.

ADVERTISEMENT
St. Louis Speakers Series ad


The first time Celeste Wieselman heard about Sar-El was years ago when Elaine Ginsberg spoke at B’nai Amoona on a Shabbat morning about her experience for the organization. Said Wieselman, “I knew right then I wanted to do it someday.”

When she finally had her opportunity to volunteer in July 2002, the experience exceeded her expectations. She returned again in November that same year and again in July 2003.

On her first assignment Wieselman worked in the laundry sorting work uniforms for the entire Israeli Defense Forces. The uniforms would come down tremendous chutes, and they would look in the waist band or collar checking for the sizes. The second year she worked at a communications base where they rewired helmets. When she expressed her concern over her skill for the project, they moved her to sanding and repainting the helmets. On her third visit she packed medical supplies. Each job provided a unique experience and memory.

“I will never forget one day when they asked us to go to another base and pack gas masks,” Wieselman said. “We were packing masks that were good for two to eight-year-old children. Most of us were grandparents or parents of older children. I can’t even describe how all of us felt that day. This is when there was a threat and there was a real possible need for the masks. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping us busy.”

Volunteers work side by side with people from all over the world. “We met people from France, Bolivia, Germany and Canada,” said Linda Koenig. Participants form close friendships which many times continue long after volunteers return home. Linda Koenig, her husband Jerry and Wieselman still keep in touch with other volunteers from each of their experiences. “We were all very close. They were your family while you were there,” Wieselman said.

The Koenigs have participated in Sar-El five times. Linda said, “We did everything from landscaping army bases to working on M16’s checking their firing mechanisms, oil and repacking them to helping to construct concrete bunkers in the Golan Heights. We were just in Israel at the end of December and saw the bunkers again. It was quite an experience.”

Admittedly, the Sar-El experience is not for everybody. It is not a five-star, or even three-star resort vacation. Volunteers stay in barracks separated by sexes and sleep on army cots. Said Linda, “You really get to know your roomies. I look at it as an adult camping experience.” The food is not necessarily American fare or style, but no one goes hungry.

However, it isn’t all work and no play. Volunteers can travel around the country, sightseeing or relaxing. There are also many learning opportunities as well. Linda said, “There are professors who are doing their reserve duty by giving lectures or taking us on day trips.”

If you are thinking about volunteering you’ll need to set aside at least three weeks. While you’ll know you will be doing something worthwhile you won’t know what you are going to do until you get there. And it most likely will not be doing what you do for a living. “You may be a heart surgeon in the United States and painting fence posts in Israel,” Linda said. “The big reward is you are replacing a reservist who has been called to the front.”

Wieselman said: “The soldiers thanked us for coming. Our being there provides an economic value as well as a morale value. Because we are there, they are able to fight and protect the country. The Israeli soldiers felt they were not by themselves, we are there to support them. They were overwhelmed by the fact that we would come over there and do manual work, sometimes very hard and difficult work.”

On one assignment when the Koenigs worked on a Navy base in Haifa they were selected to meet then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was there to dedicate a new naval ship. “He singled us out and thanked us for volunteering for Israel,” Linda said.

Volunteer Warren Fine participated in the program in September 2005 for three weeks. Fine said: “I thought it was really something. I had had some medical problems, and I wanted to give something back. It’s a mitzvah. You feel you’re really doing something for the State of Israel. It’s a very fulfilling experience.”

“You know that you fulfilling a need for Israel. You are being part of Klal Yisroel, being part of the world,” said Wieselman.

“I recommend it highly to any young person,” said Jerry. “It’s an inexpensive visit to Israel. You are performing a service to the country, and you have a lot of fun.”

For more information about volunteering in Sar-El contact Linda and Jerry Koenig at 636-394-6027 or visit www.sar-el.org.