Summer-break. Sleeping in as late as you want. Having no job stress or deadlines for a change. Even the word “work” is rarely uttered or barely given a second thought. Sun, sand, cold drinks, and usually surf are what makes for a fantastic summer-break (at least in my book!).
Why am I already thinking about summer-break? Because our winter-break just ended and it’s a very long wait until the next one! The company I work for has a policy of shutting down for an entire week during the July Fourth holiday and then again over Christmas (and sometimes the week of Thanksgiving). While I’ve never been thrilled about having vacation-dates preordained for me, I end up taking them about those times anyway. Needless to say, the company-closures usually take a good chunk out of my vacation time and I spend the next several months saving up for the next holiday/closure.
I’ve always been a big fan of summer-breaks…who isn’t? I’m the type that leaves work at work even over the weekend, so when summer-break hits, I don’t think about work AT ALL until that dreadful Monday morning drive into the office. But last summer, I didn’t have any of those typical summer-break “breaks” that involved nothing but surf, sand and sun. I didn’t sleep in, I worked hard every day, the cold drinks were few, and I sweated relentlessly — and I was miles away from the nearest beach. But I must say that it was completely worth it! I spent two weeks last summer volunteering on an IDF base in northern Israel!
About a year ago when the proverbial “writing on the wall” occurred in my marriage, I began looking for opportunities to volunteer and also do some travelling over the upcoming summer-break. Within a few seconds of Googling, I began finding number of foreign volunteer opportunities, and several of them were in Israel. At first, I wasn’t very keen on returning to Israel since I had already been there in 2010 with Koinonia House and again in 2013 with my church. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t go back until I could speak/read Hebrew, but when the opportunity to volunteer on an IDF base popped up in the Google search results, I figured I could cut myself some slack. Besides, instant immersion is the best way to learn a language, right?
Upon filling out an application for “Volunteers for Israel” (http://vfi-usa.org) and going through the basic “sanity-check” interview (mostly to make sure the volunteers are not insane and have an idea what they’re really committing to), I was ready to go! The program covers room and board, so the only real expense is the airfare, along with spending money on the weekends. My volunteer slot began the last week in June and went through the first week in July. Packing for the trip was pretty basic: clothes and toiletries for two weeks, along with comfortable shoes, a hat, and other hot-weather necessities (flip-flops, swimsuit, sun-block, etc).
Before I knew it, the departure date had arrived and I was flying out of JFK. We weren’t told much else other than to be in Ben-Gurion International Airport by 5 pm that Sunday and the VFI coordinators would do the rest. After arriving in Tel Aviv and finding the VFI group in the airport, the several dozen volunteers were split into 2-3 groups and then whisked away to the bases. I ended up on a medical-supply base in northern Israel, and the rest of that first day was spent settling into the volunteer barracks, talking to other volunteers, and finding out more about what would be expected of us during the week. We were soon given the standard olive-green IDF uniforms, our daily schedules, and the rules of our base.
The first day was the roughest, with us newcomers trying to figure out where everything was and what we were supposed to do. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were in a mess hall with better-than-average IDF army food. Each meal had the infamous Israeli salad (diced cucumber, tomato, and vinegar salad), chocolate milk-in-a-bag, and usually pita-bread with hummus. Breakfast consisted of cereal, eggs of some sort, fruit, and yogurt. Lunch was the big meal of the day with rice, pasta, and meat, while dinner was somewhat similar to breakfast, except with more vegetables.
As for the actual volunteer-work itself, we were “on duty” from 8:30-11:30 am (after flag-raising at 8:00 sharp) and then from 1-4 pm, though some days ended earlier if we finished with the day’s work early or if they were waiting on more supplies. It was very hot and humid, and some of the warehouses were air-conditioned but about half weren’t (though there was shade!).
Since we were on a medical-supply base, most of our work involved sorting, packaging, moving, and checking medical packs and various items like saline bags, IV’s, and first-aid kits. Most of the work wasn’t too strenuous, but between the heat, the constant moving, bending, and lifting, most of us were beat by the end of the day. I must have made at least 500 cardboard boxes, sorted/tossed/lifted thousands of saline bags, and sweated pints of water! When I came home and weighed myself after the trip, I had lost 6 lbs!
Most days after lunch and our afternoon shift had ended, we would nap or just hang out in the barracks with the air-conditioning cranked all the way up. When it’s hot, the first rule is to find shade (or even better, air-conditioning!) and the second is to stop moving! After dinner every night, we had a hour-long meeting with the madrichot, the two IDF soldiers (aka “den-mothers”) assigned to the volunteers. The meetings were geared towards teaching us more about the IDF, the various brigades/divisions, Israeli history, culture, and a little Hebrew.
The weekend began on Thursday afternoon when the bus took us from the base to the hostel or the train station in Tel Aviv (our choice!). The only requirement was that we had to be back at the train station by Sunday morning — or else! Since I hadn’t really made plans and didn’t know any other volunteers, I ended up staying at Beit Oded, the volunteer hostel just south of the beach (close to Jaffa) and exploring Tel Aviv. What a beautiful city! I love the ocean/sea and the beach, and the hostel was only half a mile from the boardwalk, so just about every evening was spent walking the beach.
The second work-week went by very quickly, and by then we first-timers were settled in and accustomed to the routine. The heat was frequently complained about, friendships were made, and most evenings were spent around the picnic tables in the volunteers’ area. Most times we were talking, messing around on our phones, reading, or playing cards. Though I didn’t learn much Hebrew, I did learn to count to ten pretty well (ehad-1, shtaim-2, shalosh-3, arba-4, hamesh-5, shesh-6, sheva-7, shmone-8, tesha-9, eser-10), along with “please” (bevakasha), “thank you” (toda), “good morning” (boker tov), “good evening” (erev tov), “good night” (layla tov), and of course, “hello/goodbye” (shalom!). I figure that in two weeks, my Hebrew went from that of a 15-month old to an 18-month old (maybe)!
The last weekend I was there, I took the train up to Haifa and toured the B’hai Gardens and then explored the eastern part of the city along the port. Since my flight left late the next day and it was Shabbat (when all public transportation shuts down), I went back to Tel Aviv and found a couple of quiet cafes to kill time in, experienced the Shuk HaCarmel market just before Shabbat, and then walked the beach again, of course!
Volunteering on an IDF base was a wonderful experience, and it was great to help Israel a little through our service. Mostly it was doing rather menial work that the IDF didn’t want to delegate to the regular soldiers, yet it was work that needed to be done nevertheless. The land of Israel is very beautiful, the weather is great (sunny and hot!), the people are friendly (though a little brusque at first!), and the food is terrific — even most of the army grub! There’s a lot of heart, energy, and vibrancy packed into that tiny nation, and it’s full of life, people, and culture from all over the world.
I am planning on going back in a year or two and volunteering with VFI again, though maybe in the winter when it’s cooler. Next time, I’ll pack less clothes (you really just need t-shirts for the work-days) and will team up with some other volunteers and go to Jerusalem or other places. Also, I’ll be more diligent about trying to speak Hebrew more often (and less English) while I can! Instant immersion works best when you get out of your comfort-zone and force yourself not to speak your native language.
It was wonderful being a blessing the people that God has blessed, who have preserved His Word for thousands of years and have shown His faithfulness over and over in their long history. It was incredible working side-by-side His people which are being regathered to His land, who have been “brought back from the sword.” It was wonderful being in the place where so much of the Bible took place and where the King Himself will dwell one day.
“I will bless those who bless you, and I curse those who curse you, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” — Genesis 12:3