Who doesn’t remember where they were or what they were doing on the morning of 9/11? Well, for those of us around on June 6, 1967, who doesn’t remember where we were, what we were doing when we heard about the beginning of the Six Day War? That’s really where my story starts.
I was about to graduate college when I heard the news. I said to the dean of women and the house mother of my sorority (yeah, back in the day when girls’ residences on campus needed someone to watch over us and “tuck us in at night” and make sure the door was locked so no guys could come in!) that I’d take a row boat if I thought I could make it to Israel that way to help in the fight! And I distinctly remember the dean of women horrified, saying “And miss graduation?” Well, I didn’t get there in June 1967 and it was many years later that I finally got to Israel for my first time. After numerous trips there, many for work and a few for touring I was finally able to fulfill my dream (I guess as they say today, did something on my bucket list!).
Someone in Teaneck who had done the program told me about Volunteers for Israel (VFI, an American organization referred to in Israel as Sar-El). Wow, you mean I can go to Israel and help do something constructive and meaningful? What could be better? It was the most fabulous experience! For those of us who have a burning desire to show support and help Israel and may not have significant amounts of money to make large contributions, what better way to support Israel than give of myself?
VFI’s members are civilian volunteers assigned to IDF bases helping the military with their tasks so they are free to perform other duties. The first group of 17 that I was assigned to were all English speaking, though there were at least 20 other groups, several from European countries (both Jewish and non-Jewish) that arrived the same day and assigned to different bases all over Israel. Every group was assigned one or two madrichot (soldiers who were responsible to be with the group and guide us during the three weeks we were volunteering).
When we arrived at the base after an hour and a half bus ride (on a coach bus with wi-fi and of course A/C!) we took our luggage to our barracks (if you’ve been to sleepaway camp as a camper or visiting children or grandchildren you get the picture). We had lunch in the mess hall with the soldiers. All meals are kosher on army bases and therefore we were not supposed to bring any outside food into the dining room
After lunch we got work boots and our “work clothing” (aka army fatigues), which consisted of a shirt, pants and belt. While skirts are not general army issue I learned when I volunteered this year that I could get a long army-issue skirt. Prior to getting the army skirt I wore my own skirt over the fatigue pants. Sleeping bags were provided. No sheets or pillows were available but the list provided to us in the handbook before we left (I liken it to “the camp list” my kids got when they went to sleepaway camp!) told us that neither of these items might be available so it was suggested we bring our own, in addition to towels, soap, detergent to hand wash clothing and a flashlight in the event the wash house/toilet facilities were not in the barracks! On the first post I was on the facilities were in the barracks, but on the second base they were not! (Really wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t as far as I remember the “outhouse” being when I was at Girl Scout camp as an 8- or 9-year old!) And the path was very well lit so no flashlight was needed.
We ate our meals with the soldiers in the mess hall. After breakfast we all lined up for flag raising. On several days one of the volunteers was even given the honor of raising the flag! It was quite an honor to be with the soldiers and raise the Israeli flag, indicating our support for them and our pride in the state of Israel. The daily work schedule was similar to sleepaway camp except our activities were not sports and swimming. Our routine was similar to the soldiers’ (e.g., daily cleaning of the barracks including cleaning the latrines, aka bathrooms!) except that the work we were assigned was different from their tasks. For instance, we did not have target practice though we were allowed to observe the soldiers one day when they did. While none of the tasks we were assigned were particularly exciting, they all needed to be done, and by us doing this work the soldiers were free to perform the duties they were trained to do. Some of the work was outside in the desert sun but there was some shade provided. Our group consisted of Jewish and non-Jewish people (all dedicated to the continued success of Israel); some retired people, some people still working; and five high school seniors who, while Jewish, had only limited background in Judaism and came to volunteer as part of their senior project. This diverse group developed into a cohesive force enjoying music, dancing, exercising and of course working together with one goal in mind: to provide service to the soldiers and to Israel, offering further evidence of our commitment to them and to Israel.
So you may ask, why did I go, what did I get out of it and would I go again? I went to fulfill a dream of being a part of the process to help in building up our homeland. I got a great sense of accomplishment that I actually was able to live a dream I envisioned 51 years ago and I truly feel that I helped my people. And I got to see the faces of the soldiers, some so young (all could be my grandchildren!) and all so grateful for the work the volunteers did and just for us coming to support them. The “thank yous” went both ways: They thanked us for coming and we thanked them for protecting our homeland! Would I go again? You bet! And in fact, I just returned before Shavuot from volunteering for five weeks on two other bases. I’m hoping to go again before too long, and again and again, as long as I have the strength and can continue to give my help and support. This is better than giving money; it is giving of myself! The program is hoping to get college students involved and has offered free trips for students interested in participating in this amazing experience. I hope that this inspires others to consider giving such help to Israel. I would love the opportunity to speak to anyone who would consider joining me in this exciting, inspiring experience! Contact me at for more information: [email protected]
Mother, grandmother, “retired” from USFDA and pharmaceutical industry. I’m still looking to make this world a little better. What better way than to give of myself to help our family in Israel?
By Rochelle Kimmel