Saturday, January 12, 2013

My time with the IDF

This last year was a crazy one. I ended up finishing up a Masters project for UC Davis on teaching pluralism and Islam in public schools (and was then accepted to this year’s American Educational Research Association conference in April), worked extensively at a new school to develop their English and history curriculum, and took a trip around the world in my free time. The blog suffered thanks to this.
This summer, I had the opportunity to volunteer on an army base in Israel for a few weeks and travel the country extensively. I had meant to make this trip for years, ever since hearing about Sar-El the volunteer program in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Since I had moved between locations, jobs, and schools over the last 6 years so often, I never had the opportunity to set aside a month of time and make the leap. Thankfully, secure employment at a school in California presented me with just the opportunity (and time off) required. For those unfamiliar with the program, Sar-El began in 1982 in the run-up to the Lebanese War. With Israeli society mobilized for combat there was not an adequate number of folks to harvest at various Kibbutz and perform necessary logistical tasks at military bases. Brigadier Aharon Davidi got the program off the ground, and since then, volunteers for Israel have been stationed at military bases around the country. While working alongside the Israeli military, Sar-El volunteers are not members of the IDF, and thus include individuals too young to be in the military (15) up to retired individuals far removed from the IDF’s age restrictions.

Although we are not allowed to say the exact base we worked on, I was stationed at a base in the north somewhere near the Golan. As this was my first trip to Israel that came as a blessing, seeing that some of the bases in the south were much hotter and removed than the location I was at.

(My work station and hat)

Most of the volunteers were split it by age and then sent with a Madricha, a female officer that would act as their guide and leader throughout the course of a volunteer unit’s stay. My group’s was an American that had made aliyah a few years prior. My group itself was a rag-tag group of international individuals from just about every walk of life. Two of our group had actually been members of the IDF in their youth, but moved to the USA and Canada respectively. It wasn’t long after arriving at my base that I realized I had been sent to one of the better locations for Sar-El volunteers, at least when it comes to jobs available to someone in my position. I would be repairing and refurbishing communication equipment for tanks and humvees. My maintenance background allowed me to work on more complicated pieces, and seeing a truck load of damaged radios and antennas leave in working order was rewarding. Even better, it provided opportunities to work with IDF solders more intimately than at other locations.

(My finished antennas and the radio, I eventually got working...)

What is striking about the IDF is its real, international character. Just in the specific portion of the base I worked on, there were Russians, Ethiopians, Arabs, and . There were those who were religious and those who were secular. Most of them were young, but there were other Israeli volunteers that put in many hours working on the base, as they had immigrated to Israel late in their lives and could not participate in official military service. Not every Sar-El volunteer in my group was up for the task. We were living in barracks on a military base, and I imagine this type of life is difficult for those that I have grown accustomed to more comfortable living conditions in their home countries. Nor was everyone prepared for the work expected of them at these bases. Making the same repairs over and over is not everyone’s idea of a good time, and the tedious nature of some of the work wore on some within our group. I was thankful enough to have a job that allowed for a great deal of variety throughout the day, but my temperament may simply be more disposed to this type of work than others. More importantly, I knew that even the monotonous tasks were important, and freed up a soldier to work on more pressing issues and tasks. Other than the bonds built between foreigners and the state of Israel, the main role of Sar-El is to provide that needed assistance, and I was happy to provide it.

(One of the great meals cooked on base)

Continued in Part 2