Volunteering with Sar-El

June 2024
Laura Wolfson

Since Oct. 7, how have we dealt with our distress and our longing to help make a difference for Israel, and for our own community reeling from both the global and the local increase in antisemitism? We make donations, we intensify our prayers and our study, we try to fight the social media war, and we attempt to increase our good deeds. We reach out to our loved ones and contacts in Israel to show our support and our love. We reach out to our community, check in on each other and share our hurt and our worry. We show up where we can. 

At the end of March, I also travelled to Israel and volunteered for the IDF through Sar-El. The name of this organization comes from the Hebrew “Sherut l’Yisrael”, which means “service to Israel”. Sar-El has been in existence for many years (long before this war) and has brought thousands of international volunteers to Israel. I had an extremely positive experience and I want to share it with you. 

The idea of Sar-El is that volunteers can do logistical tasks that free the soldiers up to do what they need to do. Volunteers might be folding laundry, assembling meal kits, sorting or sterilizing medical supplies, making simple repairs to military equipment, counting supplies, or moving boxes. I was stationed at a large army base just outside of Tel Aviv that dealt mostly with medical supplies. On the first day, after giving the volunteers army uniforms to wear (so that we would not be mistaken for intruders on the base) we were divided into our jobs. A supervisor described the tasks that needed doing, and each of the volunteers chose a task that they felt they could do. We worked in pairs or small groups in warehouses on the base. Our work started at 8 a.m. and continued until about 3:30 p.m. each day. We worked at our own pace and could take breaks whenever we needed. 

Sar-El takes volunteers of all ages! I volunteered with people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. I met other volunteers from all over Europe, from Australia, South Africa, South America, the U.S. and Canada. Most remarkably, they were not all Jewish.   At least 20% of the volunteers who were there when I was there were non-Jews. When asked why they were there, they said, simply: “we want to help”. A group of non-Jewish South Africans arrived on the day that South Africa enacted a law saying that any citizen who helps Israel will be arrested as an enemy of the state upon their return. They decided to go to the beach in Tel Aviv, take pictures of themselves swimming or sunbathing with drinks in their hands, so that upon their return home they would have photographic “proof” that they were simply on vacation. Then they came to the army base to volunteer.

In the evenings, our madrichot (the soldiers who were our supervisors) provided some activities for us. On the weekends, all Sar-El volunteers are required to leave the army base (they drove us to Tel Aviv, and most of the volunteers had booked hotels in Tel Aviv, but others, including myself, went to visit family). 

I felt good about being present in Israel, even for a short time, to be useful, even though it was in a very small way. Sar-El made it very easy: they provide transportation, meals, and lodging. For more information about Sar-El, go to https://sarelcanada.org/ or call (416) 781-6089.  I know I will participate again and I hope it will be soon.