When longtime Teaneck resident Dr. Irving Fitterman first heard about Volunteers for Israel from his friend Norman Marcus several years ago, he thought it was something he’d like to try. Now Fitterman and his wife Beverly are hooked, rolling up their sleeves and heading to Israel every October.
The Fittermans who lived in Teaneck for 37 years before moving to New York City and Boca Raton five years ago recently returned from a stint spent at an army communications camp in Ramle, where they disassembled tank radio antennas. Last year, they were based at Camp Yarden in the Golan Heights, painting parts for tanks and folding uniforms.
Fitterman, who worked as a senior marketing and management executive before his retirement, pointed out that he had served as a consultant to Israel’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry between 1968 and 1969.
"I had been to Israel 36 times, but never as a volunteer," he said. The first time he went as a VFI volunteer, "I was 77 and wearing a backpack. The El Al security people at Newark Airport thought I was crazy. They gave me a double inspection."
Sent the first time to Tzrifin army base, where he lifted tank wheels and cleaned them with wire brushes, Fitterman said he was asked several days later if he wanted to switch to an easier job.
"I said no, since I had bonded with my co-workers," he recalled. "The camaraderie was wonderful."
He noted that during his most recent trip, he told the commander at his base that he was "looking at the group’s oldest volunteer. But he told me that there were volunteers who were even older," said Fitterman, mentioning three other VFI volunteers from ages 83 to 86. "They don’t only need young people," he said. "The commander told me that volunteers do three times more work than regular soldiers."
Serving now as a "recruiter," Fitterman tells synagogue and communal groups that working as a volunteer with VFI "is such a worthwhile effort. You help with your hands while doing something quite unusual. Everyone there kvells over you, thanking you and telling you that you’re a hero."
You pay your own way and work for nothing, said Fitterman. "It’s fantastic for Israeli morale, and you feel good about yourself."
Founded in 198′, Volunteers for Israel, which Fitterman describes as a "non-profit, non-political, non-denominational organization," provides aid to Israel through hands-on civilian volunteer work. To date, the program, administered in Israel by Sar-El (which arranges work placement of volunteers), has attracted more than 100,000 workers from some 35 countries, assigning them most frequently to military bases and hospitals.
Fitterman who said he has personally met volunteers from Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, and the Czech Republic pointed out that "a large percentage are Christians." He noted that while the average period of service is three weeks, he has generally worked for two weeks, and volunteers may also choose to extend their stay.
"You work with the young soldiers and eat in the mess hall with them," he said. "There’s a lot of intermixing. They come over and ask you why you’re there." And if the food is not gourmet by any standards, he said, "it is fresh and plentiful."
While volunteers are clearly not members of the army, Fitterman stressed, they wear a uniform on base, with special epaulets, as well as paratrooper boots. "It’s fun," he said. "It distinguishes us as a ‘volunteer army.’"
Program organizers "want you to be happy and tell others about it," said Fitterman, pointing out that volunteers are also taken on trips to places such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. "Last year they took us to Kiryat Shemona to help repair buildings damaged by missile fire," he said.
"I love the atmosphere," he said. "We’re definitely going back."
On Tuesday, Nov. 13, Fitterman will speak at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center and present a slide slow about his experiences as a VFI volunteer.
For more information about Volunteers for Israel, call (866) 514-1948 or visit www.vfi-usa.org