Marion Mittelman of Pine Brook had trouble picturing herself working on an army base when her husband Steve first suggested it.
She loved the idea of traveling to Israel with him — but she had envisioned herself staying with him at five-star hotels, not in military barracks. Though fit, they are neither young nor particularly rugged. And she had never been to Israel before.
Nonetheless, she agreed to a three-week stint following a few weeks of touring.
The trip had such an impact on the Mittelmans that they became northern New Jersey’s volunteer ambassadors to the program, known as Volunteers for Israel. The United States-based nonprofit recruits volunteers to perform non-combat support for the Israel Defense Forces. Its Israeli counterpart, Sar-El, coordinates and administers the program there.
Since Sar-El’s founding in 1983, more than 175,000 people have swept barracks, packed medical supplies, and sorted equipment on one-, two-, and three-week programs, with a “healthy number from New Jersey,” according to Marian Sacks, vice president of Volunteers for Israel, who manages its ongoing operations. Volunteers work on bases Sunday through Thursday and spend weekends on their own.
“We were floating on the Dead Sea on a Friday knowing we’d be on a military base for three weeks starting Sunday,” recalled Steve of their trip in February 2013.
The couple were assigned to an army base in Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel, a half year after Israel’s 2012 battle in Gaza. “We were the first group to arrive on a supply base; we were sorting tools, which was very much needed because the entire south of Israel needed tools to fix everything” that had been damaged in rocket attacks, he said.
Marion added, “And we were relieving reservists from having to be there, so it was good for the IDF and good for the economy.”
The couple wore army-issued work clothes during the day, attended a flag-raising ceremony each morning, and ate all their meals with Israeli soldiers and other volunteers from around the world.
Marion recalled, “I pictured a giant tent with cots all over the place in really rugged conditions.” Instead, “there were individual rooms, and I shared one with two other women. There was even air conditioning. It’s like being at camp but not as rugged — it was very doable and a lot of fun.”
Marion said the hands-on work is especially meaningful. “I can write a check. But there, you get to be part of Israel, and Israelis ‘see’ you. You are part of Israel. It’s an amazing energy to tap into.
“The gratitude from Israelis is something,” she added. “They just want to hug you, not as a tourist but as someone who belongs. It’s very powerful.”
As ambassadors, the Mittelmans aid with recruitment, speaking at synagogues, campus Hillels, and wherever they can muster an invitation.
The average age of volunteers is mid-40s, although anyone over 17 can participate, and there are plenty of retirees, like the Mittelmans, who take part. There are screenings to gauge the physical and emotional strength of potential volunteers as part of the application process.
In some cases, applicants are not accepted, based on health issues or their unwillingness to agree not to proselytize. “If we truly feel the potential volunteer will not fit into the setting of living and working in very primitive conditions, we turn down the applicant,” said Sacks, who added that the percentage turned down is “very low overall.”
Marion acknowledged that the Sar-El accommodations can seem a bit Spartan; also, volunteers must wear closed shoes and bring their own linens and must be prepared to carry their own suitcases.
Of course, Israelis aren’t always sure why Americans want to volunteer in this way. Marion remembers a soldier asking her who paid for them to come to Israel. When they replied that they paid for the flight and were unpaid volunteers, she said, he was dumbfounded.
“He said, ‘You paid for a flight to come to the base? I would pay to leave!’”