This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Serving with the Volunteers for Israel - October 2001
Everyone but June, my new love, told me not to go. Comments ranged from stupidity to craziness on my part. A pregnant teacher, Shosana Greenbaum from New Jersey was blown to pieces, alongside seven other adults and seven children just two months ago in a suicide bombing at a Sbarro pizzeria in central Jerusalem. About 130 were also injured. Shootings and suicide bombers were the order of the day. The United States seemed to apply a double standard: Palestinian terrorists were somehow different (better?) than Bin Laden & Co. The rest of the world behaved even worse - no surprise there, unfortunately. This was the backdrop to our departure on October 14th. My answer to my loved ones and friends was the same: This is the time Israel needs us the most, to show our people they're not alone in their fight. Volunteers for Israel (Sar-El in Hebrew), a program supported by the IDF was the best way, in my mind, to achieve that. I signed up in August for a two week "tour of duty" in October.
October 14th - Departure from JFK airport, NY Waiting in line at the El Al security check station reveals that the only American Jews, flying to Israel today beside our group, belong to a rather large contingent of Hasidic families. The next stop, after the El Al check-in is the beefed-up airport security stations. We notice a group of armed National Guard troops, in loosely worn uniforms. The nail cleaner piece of my new nail clipper is broken-off by an overzealous security guard. Little wonder, as there are about twenty security personnel in the background, watching them and us as we file by. If I didn't know better, I'd feel like a criminal. October 15th - Ben Gurion airport, Lod, Israel It's 7:30 A.M. when I enter the arrival hall area. With Israel in a real, day-to-day war against terrorism, I expect to see army and police troops galore. There is none. Relatives and friends waiting there talk relaxed and smile a lot. I go around the whole building to find somebody from Sar-El, preferably in uniform. Lena shows up around 8:30. She'll be our madricha. That means group leader/caretaker. I learn later that she came to Israel only ten years ago from St. Petersburg, Russia, with her family. The Israeli version of the M-16 goes on her shoulder as our group boards the new tourist bus. We are off to our designated army base somewhere in the north. The very first song coming through the stereo console is "It's closing time." A favorite of June from Leonard Cohen, a Canadian poet/songwriter/singer. I'm spooked by the coincidence. An elderly fellow claims the seat next to me. We start talking. Mostly him, though, as we drive on a new three-lane highway, in the midst of heavy traffic, with new construction sites and tall cranes passing by all the time. This is in a country at war, spending upwards of 50% of GDP on defense. His name is Werner Sherry and he's also from Jersey - specifically from Monroe Township. Turns out he was an active participant in the making of the history of the last 70 years most of us only know about from books and newspapers: Settled in 1932, what was then the British Palestinian Mandate. Signed up with the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in 1939. Served in it till the end of WW II. Fought in the War of Independence in 1948-49. Was in the detachment that refused to fire on fellow Jews (Menachem Begin and others from the Irgun) on the Altadena in Tel Aviv harbor. (Troops commanded by Rabin were sent in to finish the job.) His next war was the Sinai campaign of 1956 and the last one the Six Day War in 1967. What a fitting end to a military and nation building service!
He has a great memory, active mind, and stamina. I am grateful and privileged to be here, hearing history first-hand from him. October 15th - Becoming a volunteer soldier We are shown to our quarters and get our uniforms. Accommodations are spartan and somewhat crowded, at least for us men during the first night. Bunk beds, especially top ones, never held any attraction for me, since my days in the Hungarian army. Now I get one of them, as the youngest in the group. Art, a former Marine, is the other lucky one next to me up there. I feel a special pride to be in the Zahal (IDF) uniform. In Hungary we knew we were a live shield for the Soviet troops, who were stationed behind us. Somehow, that didn't inspire us to be the proud and fearless soldiers the communist propaganda was passing us off for . . . October 16th - Our first full day of work Wake up is at 6:15 A.M., so we can make it to the reveille (flag raising) at 7 A. M. The sergeant-major, who is responsible (in every army, it seems) of carrying out the daily tasks surveys the contingent of soldiers - 18 to 20-year-old boys and girls, who are the real troops here. We get taken by bus - an old Dodge from the Wild Middle-east - to our workplaces. Our boss is a tall, lively 20-year-old corporal, called Salamah. He proudly tells us in semi-fluent English that he's a Druze (Christian Arab). I see no difference between him and the other kids in khakis. There are some beautiful black soldier girls of Ethiopian descent too. It just feels natural to hear them speak Hebrew. Breakfast is from 8:30 till 9 A.M. Lots of hard-boiled eggs. Lots of fresh veggie salad, made with diced green pepper and tomato. Plenty of yogurt, soft cheese and sour cream. Dairy products are excellent in Israel. Not so fresh, but good bread. Pre-sweetened tea with lemon. Lena tells us the latest news about terrorist activities and Israel's response. We ask about the anthrax situation in Florida, New York and Washington DC. Back on the job we are given heavy parts to clean, grease and pack. Three of us, Ron Biscow from California, Art Freyman from North Carolina, who is here with his wife, Patty, and me from New Jersey are found to be in good enough shape to work outside, in the pallet repair shop. That's where we'll be going after lunch. Even more eggs (now scrambled), fresh veggie salad, meatloaf and pasta, soft cheese, sour cream, and apples for lunch. A balanced, high protein diet, indeed! They really want you to keep those muscles in good working condition around here.
This is Ron's sixth round with Sar-El, but his first job assignment in a pallet repair detail. He takes it with his usual fun-loving disposition but remarks later that this is, most likely, his last tour of duty . . . . We're at our new workplace from 1 till 4 P.M. There are only a few clouds in the light blue Mediterranean sky, so it gets pretty hot fast under the sun. We take breaks when we need to and shoot the breeze, so to speak, with our new "boss", Gal. Like most everyone in the young generation, he speaks English. Dinner is from 5:30 till 6 P.M. Guess what? It's hard-boiled eggs, pasta, veggie salad, yogurt, etc. again. I like most of this stuff, so I don't mind. October 17th - Rehavam Ze'evi is assassinated What an ominous day! We're told at the breakfast briefing about the killing of the Minister of Tourism, Rehavam Ze'evi. It was carried out in the Jerusalem Hilton, just a few hours ago, by the Palestinians. The air suddenly feels much thicker. By now we've gotten used to hearing a few rounds of artillery fire from the north and seeing an occasional fighter plane or army helicopter fly by during the day. Now we hear them all day long. I read his obituary later in the Jerusalem Post. His picture was in every house of two newly built Bedouin villages for which he secured government funds. He did that to reward the loyalty of the Arab trackers who fought under his command in previous wars. Somehow, hard facts like this and his humanity are conveniently forgotten by the media at large. Could it be that they would contradict the carefully constructed image of him as an ultra-nationalist right-winger, who "deserved" to be killed by "righteous" terrorists? Later on the same day Lena gives us the passes when we return from work in the afternoon. We get ready in a hurry to take our first leave. She and Tamara, her replacement in training, accompany us. The center of town - a city, really, with lots of high rise office and apartment buildings and a large (even by American standards) mall is only a twenty-minute walk away. The weather is perfect. Cars, buses, and trucks hog the roads. Sidewalks are very busy. Parking space is at a premium. It's like Midtown New York, trafficwise! Having been checked through the entrance, we enter the crowded mall. Where do all these people come from? Israel only has about 6 million inhabitants. My fears of it being overpowered by its enemies or events are starting to fade. The vitality and will to overcome the tragedy that took place just this morning is
palpable in the air. I'm grateful to be able to add my "bit" to my people's determination to fight, win, and prosper under such trying conditions. So is everyone else in our group. That's why we're really here. October 18th - The Museum of Clandestine Immigration Thursdays are designated for full day historical and sightseeing trips. We get to spend Friday and Saturday any way and at any place we want. The return to the base is set for Sunday morning. Our first stop is the Museum of Clandestine Immigration in Haifa. The Navy Museum is also at the same site. We see a movie in the bowel of one of the old, decrepit ships that was fully restored and made to house this exhibit. What a heart-rending story of suffering and homecoming in such a setting! Most of us know about this period only from the Hollywood rendition of the travails of the Exodus. The reality was so much worse . . . . We take a stroll afterwards on the Bat Galim promenade hugging the bay and end up at the cable car that goes to Stella Maris on the crest of Mt. Carmel. No time to make the trip though, unfortunately. We head back on the road to Tel Aviv, where I get off at the Central Bus station to catch a bus to Jerusalem. Passing through the security at the entrance I find myself in the middle of a Middle-eastern bazaar, with a cacophony of loud music coming from floors and floors of small stores and food places. A mass of people swirl by in constant motion. Now this is what I call the real thing! October 18th - Evening in Jerusalem I'm to meet Anna, June's daughter inside the huge new central bus station by the Information kiosk. She is in Israel for religious studies and is considering making aliyah. I expect to see her dressed in the usual American garb. She expects me to wear the same. We almost miss each other, except for the fact that nobody else is around. She is in traditional Jewish dress with a scarf and the rest. I look like somebody straight out of Central Europe, according to her. We take a taxi to a very nice, clean and inexpensive ($35) Army hostel on King David Street. Overnight stay was arranged for me there by Lena, back on the base. It is only half a block away from the King David Hotel. We go there to look around and out to its terrace to take in the view of Old Jerusalem. It's dark already. The walls of the eternal city sparkle as they're illuminated. We share a few magical moments.
October 19-20th - Old and new The Jerusalem Hilton is down the street too. It was just reopened this morning, two days after the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi there. I stroll through the empty lobby to find the business center, so I can check my email and send some too. Then I trek through Independence Garden, up on Jaffa Road, and through the Old City to the Kotel. My daughter asked me to go there to leave a message for all of us. I fold it up tight and press it into a crevice that seems to be already overutilized for this purpose. Back in Tel Aviv just before sunset, I'm looking for a place by the beach on Hayarkon Street and Herbert Samuel Boulevard. Hotels are almost completely empty. First class rooms, facing the beach and the sea, go for $55. That's about a third of what they used to be. I recall reading in the Jerusalem Post that more than fifty percent of hotels, be they small, large, or chain owned, were going out of business or closed already. The article cited the lack of tourists and business travelers from the US as the main reason. Strolling on the busy promenade in the warm, breezy evening I get to meet a retired school principal, who likes to talk, talk, and talk. His English is very good though and he shows real appreciation for the fact that I and my group are here now, helping as volunteers in the Army.
I go back to the Yamit Park Plaza hotel around midnight. Middle-eastern songs of unrestrained monotony fill the air till 2 A.M. as I try to sleep. This is supposed to be the holy Sabbath? It is a perfect Saturday morning for a swim in the clear, green-blue, warm sea. The water is at least 75oF! Colorful parasols dot the wave-lapped golden sands, which are filling up fast with people from the city and the outlying areas. You can stay on this gorgeous beach all day long for 15 shekels ($3.50), with a lounge chair, umbrella and freestanding showers thrown in for good measure. October 23th - Our "signature photo" shoot A long, rectangular ammunition box was dropped off yesterday at our worktables for repairs. My mind started to churn. I turned to Art, Ron, and our "boss" Gal and asked, "What if we made this into a 'casket for Arafat?' He sure deserves one pronto, and we're here to be of service, aren't we?" I thought also, that it would give us some badly needed motivation, as the excitement of the first days of banging away on broken pallets was pretty much gone by now…. So, here we are in the picture, from left to right: Art, me, and Ron. Might it be possible, that in a rather roundabout way, this little prank of ours has helped to bring about the demise of Arafat as a "negotiating partner?" Do I wish it were true! October 25th - The Museum of Diaspora, Tel Aviv Thursdays being "trip-days", we're back in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Our first stop is Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. It is located on the ultra-modern campus of Tel Aviv University. The permanent exhibition is divided into six thematic sections: Family, Community, Faith, Culture, Among the Nations, and The Return to Zion, as envisioned by the poet, Abba Kovner. to tell "A story thousands of years old - forever new." Each section is full of murals, reconstructed walls and ceilings, dioramas, audiovisual displays, models, documentary films and interactive multimedia presentations. They come to life as Ron and I listen to the knowledgeable tour guide, whose group we join, instead of staying with our own. Millions of floating small lights hit my eyes in a dark space at the center of the building. It is the Memorial Column, suspended from high above, commemorating Jewish martyrdom throughout history. My immediate family perished in the Holocaust, except my mother, who survived Auschwitz and father, who was in forced labor camps. I pray for all of them as we leave.
November 30th - Reflections It's taken me till now, since my arrival back to the US, to come to terms with and reconstruct these events. We're now in the same war against terrorism as Israel is. What can I say? Israel needs our help now more than ever. It is just as safe or unsafe - to be there than here under the circumstances. Visit or stay there as a tourist, volunteer, student, scholar, business or religious person now! You'll see both you and Israel will be richer for it.