January 24, 2008
The living dream
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.