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Jewish Journal

The living dream

by Robert David Jaffee

January 24, 2008 | 7:00 pm

The author, right, with Aviram Shvarts, a 21-year-old soldier of Iraqi-Jewish descent

The author, right, with Aviram Shvarts, a 21-year-old soldier of Iraqi-Jewish descent

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. Dan Kaplan, my other roommate, is a cantankerous 75-year-old veteran of the U.S. Army, who kids me about reading a left-wing publication like Ha'aretz and a left-wing writer like Amos Oz, whose novel, "To Know a Woman," rests on my bed.

John Whittam, a onetime RAF pilot who says he studied 40 years at a Bible college, refers to God as Yud Heh Vav Heh, instead of Yahweh, and expresses shock when I tell him that Satan is a sympathetic character in Milton's "Paradise Lost."

David Wizel, 70, a former officer in the Polish army, has the grin of Jack Nicholson and a voice reminiscent of Count Dracula's or a cross between that of an SS guard and a KGB agent, not surprising given that he was born in Austro-Hungary and studied engineering in Moscow.

Of the roughly 25 people in the program, about half are Jewish and half Christian. Some of the Christians are evangelicals; the younger ones, women from Finland, Germany and Holland, seem to be idealists as much as fundamentalists.

Some critics may view Sar-El or Marva as no different from the military camps or madrassas in Pakistan, radical training grounds for Muslims, but in truth, there is no attempt here to indoctrinate volunteers nor to demean Muslims or Arabs.

In fact, we have been told specifically by Benbenishty and Granot that we are not supposed to talk about religion or politics.

To no one's surprise, however, our discussions often do revolve around those two subjects. Though we are all dedicated Zionists, conflicts occur.

During our first week at an evening activity modeled after "Jeopardy!" we are asked to name as many Israeli towns as possible. One woman keeps telling me to list Bethlehem.

"Why don't you write it down?" she says.

"It's not in Israel," I say.

This woman, a Christian from England with whom I have exchanged pleasantries earlier in the week, becomes distant with me after this exchange.

As week one progresses, I move over to another warehouse with Barry Raffensberger, a former Air Force flier and commercial pilot who can distinguish F-15s from F-16s when they soar through the sky. I call my diminutive colleague, who hails from Greenville, S.C., and speaks with a Southern twang, the "Energizer Bunny," because he eats one meal a day and never stops moving. He keeps coming up with more ideas for work, even if it's sweeping dust outside the warehouse, an area that isn't supposed to be clean.

We carry heavy-duty batteries for jeeps, trucks and APVs, transport vehicles that look like tanks but lack the cannons, from the warehouse outside onto wooden pallets. Batteries that are no more than 13 months beyond the expiration date are considered good. We place them on one pallet. Those that are 14 months or more beyond the expiration date are considered old and placed elsewhere.

I doubt that the U.S. Army would use batteries that are even a month beyond expiration, but this is Israel, a country that lacks the wealth of America. The IDF may not be the ragtag army of 1948, which smuggled in guns, ammunition and soldiers by boat, but it still has to rely on guile and resourcefulness.

When Raffensberger and I talk to Lilach Bozaglo, our commander at this warehouse, she emphasizes how much she admires us for being here. She says that life in Israel is not easy. She has two young children and lives in Ashkelon, where Qassams have fallen on occasion.

Aviram Shvarts, a 21-year-old soldier of Iraqi-Jewish descent, asks me why I am here. I tell him I love Israel, and he looks at me with a self-deprecating smile. Shvarts is a "jobnick," since he commutes to the base every day and will not return to the army once he finishes his three-year stint.

He says that economic opportunities are scarce in Israel and informs me of his friend, a brilliant man who "knows everything" but lost his job as an electrician and now can't find employment.

Shvarts is a whiz at computers, which he hopes to teach in Los Angeles if he can get a green card, but he spends most of his time in the army inventorying auto parts.

In my second week in the program, I get a sense of Shvarts' routine, as I fold cardboard boxes and place nuts, bolts, radiators, fans, even safety belts inside them. Raffensberger and I call out serial numbers and the number of parts and check to see if they correspond with Bozaglo's printout.

I can understand why Shvarts is thrilled to be leaving the army. The job seems tedious, but it is also crucial. We have to make sure that the mechanics have the proper parts in case the jeeps, trucks or APVs break down during a war.

Unlike my Marva experience, this time I have come prepared for the army.

I took Hebrew lessons at American Jewish University every Sunday morning for 20 weeks. I renewed my jogging, benefiting from orthotics, and started doing pullups again, cranking out 20 in a set, not as many as years before, but still a good amount.

The last day I get to display my strength by hauling a tarpaulin up a hill. This comes about when I mention that it is supposed to rain here after the second week. The APV treads, batteries and other spare parts will get wet if we don't cover them.

Shvarts is amazed when I lug the tarpaulin, which is the length of half a basketball court, over rocks and through brush. With Shvarts and Amir, another soldier, helping, I lead the way to the warehouse, even as my sneakers begin to slip on pebbles. The tarpaulin is a formidable foe, but I yank it as if I am in a tug-of-war contest and heave the massive canvas up to the staging area.

This does not approach combat, nor does it involve great technical skill, but we have saved critical components from being damaged, which would not only have undone all of our hard work of the past two weeks but also impeded the effectiveness of the vehicles, possibly in time of battle.The final ceremony arrives, and we are asked to say a few words as we receive our honorary certificates. After a few volunteers speak earnestly in English, I address the Israeli soldiers in Hebrew. I tell them that I have respect for all Israelis and the Israeli army. Then I say, "Chalom chalamti al Yisrael, veh ze chalom" (I have dreamt a dream about Israel, and this dream...), and because I don't know quite enough Hebrew, I add in English that this dream "came true."

An officer, who has presided over the ceremony, looks at me with a great deal of emotion in his face. He appears moved.

Afterward, when I get off the bus in Tel Aviv, Benbenishty hugs me and Itamar Futterman, a soldier who served in a tank unit in the second Lebanon War, tells me that it "has been an honor, a privilege" to serve with me.

Perhaps, I have inspired the Israelis, but they have inspired me even more. And they inspire all of humanity with the poise and serenity with which they live their lives, despite facing the prospect of annihilation every day.

Like David, though they have walked through the "valley of the shadow of death," they "will fear no evil."

For more information, visit http://www.vfi-usa.org.



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