Our Destinies are Intertwined

Posted: July 7, 2011 in Israel

Our Destinies are Intertwined

By Roger Neill
(Edited by Stacey Miller)
Published on Sarel.org February 2011

[The year of] 2010 was my fourth consecutive year, [and my] second – 3-month period with 10 Sar El assignments in total. As with every previous assignment, the experience was incomparable. Now that I am a ‘veteran’ I have been trying to analyze the dynamic of Sar El within the context of modern Israel, and think that I at last, may have it.

But first (for the benefit of all the other veterans more accomplished than I – who will remember such assignments) my arrival took us to Beersheva – a Tech and Logistics Base. [There we worked] on the Merkava guide and drive wheels which appeared fresh from the field. They were often rusted, caked with packing grease and having an occasional spent ammunition round jammed in their spokes.

I was working with a radically-motivated USMC Vietnam Vet whose love for Israel was ‘viral’. He was a natural leader, looked as though he were 40 years old, and had the bearing of a Master Sergeant. Our civilian supervisor allowed creative problem-solving and ‘the marine’ knew how to do everything. After a few days he had an assembly line set up that doubled our efficiency. As always with Sar El, we didn’t have the right tools for the job so went at tank wheels with screw-drivers, paint scrapers, wire brushes, diesel fuel and ultimately, a power-washer. It was the marine who volunteered to get soaking wet till I managed to get back to my ‘supply base’ at the Adiv and pull my rain-suit from the stored pack. Now only his boots got soaked. But after all, he was a Marine and that meant he had to be soaking wet all the time.

It was your usual Sar El group of highly accomplished professionals and business people: a prominent Washington lawyer and his wife, a Defense contract engineer (and amateur archaeologist), an Arctic Circle social worker with the most amazing human rights story; nurses, other social workers, a professor of Holocaust studies (who provided us with spectacular evening sessions), a Toronto accountant and . . . in all humility. . . me (the under-achiever) ! But I was a ‘veteran’.

It was here that the life-and-death nature of Sar El was brought to my attention. ‘Marion’ had a spectacular Sar El record with scores of assignments and service during the Lebanon war where they got evacuated (due to rocket attacks on the base) to Tel Hashomer for medical-supply service. Sar-El Program Coordinator Pam Lazarus bravely endured the rockets and fire at the Navy base they had been removed from, to retrieve the group’s belongings. Pam is an un-sung heroine.

One vet (a ‘NYC’s Finest’ – shot in the line of duty) told of working very late at night during the Operation Cast Lead war with Gaza, to provide medical supplies for the front lines. The army trucks would literally be idling on the pads outside the sorting-warehouses, till they had a load and then would scream off to the front.

After Beersheva I was off to the Navy: again, Tech and Logistics south of Haifa. This time it was warehousing. All of the women (the smart ones) ended up on the computers in the automated warehouses [while] we ‘grunts’ ended up in the manual warehouses. This suited my annual Sar El weight-loss program since we were experiencing 36 degree Celsius temperatures, working high in warehouses with opaque roofs and no air conditioning (except mercifully in the offices where we had our breaks).

Once again it was meaningful work. All the fighting ships at sea called in supply orders as required and thus the work was like a fireman’s work: hurry up and wait, followed by: “fast. . . fast. . . fast ! ! ! When the orders were faxed, we were off to locate the items off the computer code which identified placement on the shelves. It was essentially a number that came from a 3-dimensional grid. Mobile ladder, climb to the shelves, put on a dolly, code and label, then off to the next request. I loved it and lost weight to the tune of 2 belt notches. My clothing would be drenched in the humid Mediterranean heat and I would not be fit to enter the dining hall with the commanders present.

This base has a gracious Navy Commander that calls us to his boardroom several times during an assignment. They gave us a wonderful PowerPoint presentation on the role of naval Tech and Logistics and the Commander would come to our dining table and talk with us repeatedly. Naval Commanders are the ‘gentlemen’ of the IDF just as they were in Admiral Nelson’s day.

This time the contingent of Sar El talent included: a prominent Toronto physician and his 17 year old son; a math and economics doctoral candidate from Hungary, a retired, widely-traveled New Zealand teacher , a widely-traveled New York teacher, a Chicago refrigeration specialist, a Dutch retired businessman who lives part-time in Brazil, a retired Royal Dutch Naval Marine and a prominent Montreal Medical School professor, practitioner and Oncology researcher doing joint pharmacological research with Israeli University Hospitals. Sar El generally represents a roster of geniuses.

The non-Jewish Toronto physician came to Sar El out of gratitude to the Israeli military. He had served with the Canadian contingent of UN forces in the Golan Heights and had a severely bleeding man on his hands. Only the Israeli military were capable of helping and they responded instantly to the distress-call and thus the doctor could save the man’s life. He possessed a profound respect for Israel, its military and its need to survive. He felt his son should get a dose-of-life not blunted by CNN or the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation.)

Then finally the dream came true: two Lebanon Border postings in succession. The first group was unbelievable. We were nine nations and 20 languages, represented in 15 people. The chemistry was remarkable among the Sar El recruits with a high percentage of seriously observant Jews and Christian Zionists.

There was a Spanish Foreign Legion vet, a young female Belgian student, a German-born (Tajik background) school teacher who lived in Canada, a Norwegian Hydrology Engineer, a young Parisian girl, a retired South African heavy-equipment mechanic and operator (and his wife- a registered nurse), a German admin assistant, and a German professor of religious studies and linguistics, as well as a female Norwegian-military vet.

Exciting things happened during that assignment which only added to the modern day miracle that was represented in our presence together. There was an explosion somewhere near one of the surveillance posts and rumor had it that a UN 4×4 had come roaring up to the border-gate. Next day a helicopter landed on the base heli-pad and rumor had it that it was the [Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff, Gabi] Ashkenazi. The whole base was abuzz with the news.

(Above:) IDF Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi

Next assignment at this same central command battalion of Golani, Givati and Paratroopers, Chief of Staff Ashkenazi came for an announced inspection and we got to see him land. It was one of the ‘coolest’ experiences in my ‘cool-rich’ library of experiences. The UH 60 (Blackhawk) helicopter came in low out of the beautiful Galilee hills and suddenly banked over our heads and approached as the door opened and a crew-spotter coached the soft-landing. Then staff with briefcases and soldiers burst out of the cabin and marched toward the waiting convoy, which roared past our gate down the road to another border base.

On the earlier landing, our soldier work-supervisor (from Combat Engineering) told our Madrichot that we were going off-base to a moshav for an unscheduled swim and free afternoon. What a sacrifice.

The interaction with the soldiers was of a different quality than on the Tech and Logistics bases. We would arrive on the forward posts in the morning to find the border patrol soldiers laying out their gear for inspection and they would invite us to sit down with them. They were deeply appreciative of our presence and expressed it profusely. We would slap shoulders and hug and they would give us priceless pins (like the Givati graduation pin pressed into the hands of one of the Madrichot to be given to me anonymously). It is a gift I will treasure till my dying day. That young soldier, serving on one of the most dangerous borders in the world – constantly in harms way from the 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel from Lebanon alone, the snipers, landmines and IEDs’ – gives me the pin for which he fought during months of unimaginably arduous training.

We pulled, patched and anchored camouflage netting, painted insignias on the officer club then in the second assignment did sand-bagging and erected ‘Hescos:’ laid razor wire on top of chain-link fences and cleaned up warehouse stalls.

The humid heat of the coast gave way to the cool beauty of the Galilean hills and beautiful mornings in the synagogue before everybody arose. Myself and a Jewish guy from the mid-west would be alone in the cool-quiet of the un-lit synagogue as the undulating roar of the crop-duster aircraft intruded on the morning. Magnificent verdant agricultural produce and poultry farms surrounded us and from the border posts we would see the Israeli side of the border, cool and green. The Hezbollah side was barren and brown except for a strategically-placed ‘forest’ on the border that was used to hide the surveillance and combat equipment of the terrorists. While we were there, an IDF patrol leader (from another border base) was shot and killed by the euphemistically-named Lebanese Army while on a UN-approved brush-clearing exercise to prevent terrorist intrusion. He had a family and children and was only weeks away from completing his military service. A Jewish family was robbed of its father and husband, brother and son so that Hezbollah could celebrate with the soon-to-visit Iranian dictator, Mahmood Ahmadinejad. Later an anti-tank rocket was fired at a group of Israeli border guards near Gaza. Israeli retaliation was immediate as it must be.

So, what conclusions have I come to as a ‘seasoned vet’ in Sar El ?

Well, the miracle of Sar El (which was borne amidst an urgent need for labor during the ‘War of Attrition’) now represents a diplomatic mission . This is not surprising in that we are told that by the commanders, but what is remarkable is the spiritual and psychological component.

Spiritually, Jews of many stripes and Christians, atheists, secularists of many stripes and New Age believers come together for one primary reason: the love of Israel. We put aside our world view and political conflicts and work shoulder-to-shoulder to help the Jewish people and this tiny democracy to survive in a sea of aggressive, totalitarian regimes, determined to snuff out the candle.

From all over the world and many walks of life, we interact and squabble and try to sort-out our differences for the period of our assignments because we (as minorities of minorities of minorities) share that one thing in common. What motivates that love (and I use the term in the sense of self-sacrifice) is incredibly varied: political, religious, ethnic, moral, historical. . . But in a world where the relentless left-wing and Islamic propaganda machines work to demonize Israel – we of Sar El don’t believe it! We are willing to put that informed skepticism into action and put our time, our money and our muscle behind it.

Psychologically and socially, these dear baby-faced Israeli soldiers who have to put their lives on hold for 2-3 years in order to stay alive. . . [get to] see doctors, lawyers, engineers, other professionals and business people put their lives on hold to sweat with them, be ordered around by them and do the jobs they hate. Perhaps more importantly, we talk together.

They get to see that North American and Western European lives are not the idealized vision they imagine. We get to see the frustrations and oft-absurdities of Israeli life from a very personal perspective. Most of all, this impossible little nation with its incredible national, racial and ethnic diversity (and tortured history) get to face the Jewish Diaspora that support them. They get to see other Jews who are willing to live and die for them. They get to see Christians (who they have known to persecute them down through the centuries) who are willing to live and die with them. The young soldiers get to see people who love what the Jews represent as a people and recognize what an immense contribution they have made to the modern world. It may help them transcend the arduous daily fight-for-survival that they must endure.

Twice I was told (by various highly-placed Jewish professionals ) that they had never seen Jewish people held in such high regard by anyone – even by other Jews – as we expressed in our interaction with them. This almost made me weep.

Israel does this to people. . . to the people who love her. The exposure is irreplaceable. The contact is intoxicating. A week feels like a month and a month like a year because of the concentrated richness of culture, language, history, faith, euphoria, pathos and the tangible love of HaShem .

All those who love Israel have destinies that are intertwined and Sar El represents one vehicle for the unified expression of that love.

  1. Barb Churcher says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. It is well-written and the words flow smoothly. The bits of humor were fun. It is good to be given a small picture of what it is like to be a volunteer with Sar-El. It sounds like it would be an amazing experience.
    The links to other Israel web sites on the right are very helpful; I could spend hours going through them, they are so interesting.
    Thanks, Roger, for your work.

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