|Robert and Nancy Hyman answered the call for Sar-El volunteers.|
Robert Hyman celebrated his 61st birthday in uniform under fire from Hamas missiles, assembling medical kits at the Israel Defense Forces’ large medical supply base.
“I could not think of a better birthday present to myself,” he says in all sincerity.
Mr. Hyman and his wife, Nancy, made aliyah from Teaneck last October. They raised their three boys in New Jersey and now live in Efrat near their son Yakir and his family. Even before they saw an urgent call for volunteers from Sar-El Volunteers for Israel, they had signed up for three weeks of service wherever the IDF needed them.
“Because of the situation, we had a unique opportunity to step forward and do something we wanted to do, at a time when Israel was at war,” said Mr. Hyman, who had been a senior executive at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Sar-El’s program coordinator, Pamela Lazarus, said that in 1982 Gen. Aharon Davidi launched a drive for overseas volunteers to staff kibbutzim whose men were off fighting in Lebanon. “They got about 600 volunteers, as a one-time thing. But when people went home, many of them said they wanted to do it again, so the organization was started.”
Every year, Sar-El gets between 3,000 and 4,000 volunteers, not all of them Jewish, from many countries. Some of those who volunteered and consequently made aliyah wanted to participate again. Hence, the program was opened to Israeli citizens and has attracted not only newcomers but also IDF veterans and Israeli expatriates.
Ms. Lazarus works closely with former Teaneck resident Howie Mischel of Chashmona’im, who has volunteered with Sar-El several times over 25 years and is the Sar-El liaison at the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh. “The idea was to attract olim” – immigrants – “to serve on army bases if they were over the age for mandatory army service,” Mr. Mischel said. “It’s a nice complement to the original purpose of Sar-El, which is to bring the volunteers from overseas.”
Sar-El is part of the army’s logistics unit, which oversees many supply warehouses, Ms. Lazarus said.
Participants, generally grouped according to their native language, stay on base from Sunday through Thursday performing the essential but tedious and time-intensive tasks of replacing, cleaning, organizing, inventorying, and packing all sort of gear: motor vehicles and parts, uniforms, machinery, medical supplies, communications equipment, and edibles, for example.
At night, they hear guest speakers and participate in fun and group-building activities. Ordinarily a couple of day trips are included, but they were canceled during Operation Protective Edge.
“To be on the base at a time of heightened need was extra special in terms of feeling the impact of making a contribution to the IDF,” said Mr. Hyman, who signed on for another three weeks after his first stint was over.
“I am busy with the grandchildren and the house,” Ms. Hyman added. “But when the situation with Gaza started up, I felt like baking cakes for soldiers just wasn’t going to cut it. And I realized there might not be another time for me to do this with Rob because I’ll be working full time.”
She and seven other volunteers, ranging in age from 20 to about 80 and coming from a variety of English-speaking countries, stocked or restocked medical kit bags with such items as gauze, poison-gas antidotes, bags of saline, eye drops, bug spray, antibiotic ointment, tourniquets, and IV needles.
“The second week we were there, we were resupplying kit bags that were coming back from Gaza,” she said. “We were actually crying while packing the kits because we hoped and prayed they wouldn’t have to be used. That made it very real and very personal.”
The volunteers kept chitchat to a minimum so they could concentrate on their work. “As I opened one kit, I told my supervisor it didn’t feel right, and sure enough someone had skipped putting in a tourniquet,” she said. “Thank God I caught that.”
On her final day, Ms. Hyman and her coworkers – including Wendy Nelson Ackerman of Mahwah – had to finish two sets of 201 kits each. “We said we’re not leaving till we get this job done,” she recalled. “We worked double time because it was so important to us. We were told that we saved the IDF millions of dollars in manpower, even with the cost of feeding us.”
She and her husband didn’t see much of each other until the weekends. They were assigned to different tasks, and the sleeping barracks are gender-segregated. (On weekends, participants who don’t live in Israel can stay at a Sar-El hostel or make their own arrangements.)
Mr. Hyman’s group of about 30 volunteers assembled and replenished medical kits for medics and field surgeons. These kits are used not only in Israel but also for the state’s many humanitarian missions, such as to Haiti and Japan, and in army field hospitals set up to treat casualties flowing over the border from Gaza in the south and Syria in the north.
“The supplies come from vendors, get assembled and replenished here, and then go out to all units,” he said. “It’s a major operation, and I’m amazed at the efficiency with which they handle it.”
His initial group of men and women was diverse, ranging from college students to retirees, mainly from the United States and Canada. During his second three-week session, which began on August 31, most of the volunteers are retirees. School is back in session.
“The people you meet are wonderful,” Mr. Hyman said. “I’m working with a
former airline pilot, lawyers, doctors, teachers, social workers, business people. We also get the opportunity to work side by side with active-duty soldiers and reserve soldiers. That adds an interesting perspective, and gives us chance to practice a little Hebrew.”