I am not sure how I would have felt about my own mother volunteering with the Israeli Army. So when I heard that a couple of women from South Africa, now living in Irvine, had spent weeks schlepping and cleaning for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as volunteers with Sar-El, part of Volunteers for Israel, I was intrigued. They were empty-nesters, after all; it was time to enjoy the years after raising children and working to help support a family. And, leaving the comforts of Irvine behind, Jackie Kerszenbaum and Nadine Berkowitz specifically chose to volunteer in Israel. And what better way to do that than three weeks on an Israeli Army base? Yes, military service is compulsory (for men and women) in Israel, but Kerszenbaum and Berkowitz volunteered their time—making the adventure all that more meaningful.
Having spent time on American military bases myself, I had to meet these two women to find out why anyone would voluntarily spend vacation time on a military base! Kerszenbaum informed me she had been inspired by her niece, who previously volunteered with a similar two-week program. Her niece went on to join the IDF and now lives in Israel; “Nadine [Berkowitz] was inspired by me!” said Kerszenbaum. This was not the first trip to Israel for either Kerszenbaum or Berkowitz. Kerszenbaum lived in Israel for several years (where her husband served in the army, therein politely declining the offer to accompany her on this trip) and Berkowitz had visited Israel years before.
After signing up together, Kerszenbaum and Berkowitz requested that they stay together while volunteering. After the long flight, they were met at the airport by Volunteers For Israel and received their assignments. “You are assigned a base when you volunteer,” said Kerszenbaum. And, being first-time volunteers, there is not much of a “choice.” But, fortunately the two friends were placed on the same base.
Volunteers for the program came from all over the world and were of all ages and all religions. The mission of the organization, said Kerszenbaum, is to “promote goodwill all over the world.” And so, Kerszenbaum explained, “We wanted to share our wonderful experience with [JLife] readers so they know they too can participate in this wonderful experience of volunteering service.”
Due to security reasons, neither volunteer shared details of the base location or specific work performed, but Kerszenbaum and Berkowitz spoke fondly of the two female Israeli soldiers who acted as madrichim—who took the women under their wings and were their “guides” throughout the experience. The women were part of a group of volunteers that were dispersed all over Israel. Depending on where you went, you could end up in an “open squad bay” (think Private Benjamin or Gomer Pyle if you will). However, they were fortunate in that their room was a two-person room with air conditioning and semi-private bath! In addition to Kerszenbaum and Berkowitz, the base also housed a group of 17 volunteers of various ages, all from America. They were issued army fatigues as work clothes and regulation-issue pillows, sheets, and blankets, rounding off the military experience.
The women ate in the mess hall with other volunteers and soldiers. “We were served a typical Israeli army breakfast of eggs, toast, and salad,” said Kerszenbaum. They received briefings and news each morning after breakfast and began work at 9:00 a.m., finishing at 4:00 p.m. They worked side by side with Israeli soldiers.
And it did not end with the workday: “we loved every evening!” smiled Berkowitz. Evenings were spent on education, and the volunteers met famous and high-ranking Israelis. The evenings also allowed the volunteers to meet and get to know each other personally and to learn about Israel’s army, history, geography, and much more. And when the work week ended on Thursday, volunteers were free to explore Israel on their own. Many, who had friends and family in Israel, spent time visiting and reconnecting. For others it was an opportunity to see Israel as a tourist.
“Sleeping on a cot, eating army food, and doing manual labor may not be everyone’s idea of the best way to spend a vacation,” said Kerszenbaum. “But our experience with Volunteers for Israel turned out to be a remarkable journey, and this was our way of giving back, stepping out, making new friends, getting to know Israeli soldiers, and getting to know Israel.”
Would they do it again? Neither Kerszenbaum or Berkowitz would hesitate! And, with all that is happening in Israel, the need is more urgent than ever. If you would like to find out more about volunteering, go to: www.vfi-usa.org or www.sar-el.org.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services and is a psychological assistant for a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife Magazine since 2004.