Part one of five

By Cantor Elias Roochvarg

I cannot think of a nicer retirement gift than the one Temple Israel gave Linda and me: a trip to Israel. I had heard from friends that the experience they had as volunteers there was very worthwhile, so I applied for and was accepted into a three-week program with the organization SAR-EL, which recruits volunteers from all over the world to do civilian jobs on Israeli army bases.

Linda is still working, so she could not take as much time off as I, so she joined me after the three weeks. We spent most of Passover in Jerusalem and a few days in Tel Aviv before returning home. I planned the trip so that I would have a couple of days in Israel with family to overcome jet lag before I started my volunteer work.

I was “stationed” at Anatot (birthplace of Jeremiah), in the West Bank, maybe 20 minutes from Jerusalem. There are 12 of us volunteers on this base, i.e., four couples and four individuals. I thought I was the youngest volunteer – at least on this base, but in the pre-lights-out chat with my new roomies, I discovered that one is 82, one is 77, and the 3rd is 66 – three years my junior (though he looks older). I saw a few younger volunteers at the airport, going to other bases.

The barracks are Spartan.

Breakfasts on site generally include eggs – hard boiled or scrambled, vegetables as at every meal, bread (though no toast option), yogurt, and cottage cheese, bran flakes, hot water, but the only coffee was instant. They had chocolate milk, which comes in bags. Lunch, the main meal here, consists of choice of meat or fish – could have had both, but had fish, plus lots of choices of veggies. Beverage options included water plus a concentrated apple flavored water enhancer. There was also coffee and tea. Dinners are dairy, and overall a more modest affair.

This is our typical daily schedule:

7:30 – breakfast

8:30 – flag raising ceremony

9-11:30 – Work

11:45-12:30 – Lunch

1-4:15 – Back to work

5:30-6:30 – dinner

6:30 – evening activity 

Our job usually was counting “stuff” like helmets, Kevlar vests, canteens, etc., loading them into boxes, and sorting and putting duffle bags on industrial shelving. The duffle bags weighed about 30 pounds and some had to be put on high shelves. I was the tallest one in my group, so it was hard work. Two of my roomies and I did about 50 duffle bags in a day. Richard and Stan, the 82 year old and 77 year old respectively, are amazing in their stamina. They didn’t rest till the job was done. I think it was more physically rigorous labor than I have done in years – if you don’t count bringing up all the Passover boxes from the basement. The sorting was particularly important: If a soldier gets a helmet with a broken strap, or a canteen whose cap does not close properly, s/he is at a disadvantage. Our doing these tedious jobs frees up the soldiers for other work.

The evening activities are primarily educational presentations and discussions. One night the topic was Ethiopians and the challenges they faced in making Aliyah. Another evening activity was a discussion of three major dilemmas that face/have faced Israel:

  1. The ban on public transportation on Shabbat,
  2. whether or not Israel should negotiate with terrorists, specifically for the release of hostages, and
  3. the exemption from military service of many ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

The discussions were all animated and well moderated by the madrichot to avoid argument.

We got weekends off (i.e., from Thursday after lunch thru Saturday night). A bus took us from the base to the train station in Tel Aviv. I took the train to Lehavim, where I have cousins. On the train, I sat opposite a young mother with her three or four-year-old child. She, like me, had just gotten on the train. We had traveled about three minutes to the next stop, still in Tel Aviv, when the child asked his mother, “Imma, higahnu?” Mommy, are we there yet? Of course that phrase brought back memories of hearing the same question innumerable times when my children, now in their 20s, were his age. Every second, somewhere in the world, some child is asking his/her parents that question. And Israel is no exception.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *