Joseph Werk is getting ready for his May 14 departure for Israel, where he will serve for three weeks on an IDF military base. The conditions will be less than ideal — working long hours, no heat or air conditioning, sleeping on an army cot, and having to trek from the barracks to the work area, dining hall, and bathroom.
But Werk is undaunted and in a way even welcomes the rough conditions. After all, his service will help the IDF and he is used to the drill; this will be his 20th stint with Sar-El: The National Project for Volunteers for Israel — his first as a nonagenarian. Werk turned 90 on April 10.
A resident of Spring Valley, NY, Werk is nonetheless a full-fledged member of the local Jewish community. He belongs to Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where his daughter, Susan, is education director, and he is a reliable fixture at Shabbat services there.
“We are all so proud of my father,” she said. “He’s a role model of how to live life to the fullest. Age does not define him.” At no point over the last years has the idea of his not volunteering been seriously considered. “As soon as my dad returns from one Sar-El volunteer stint,” Susan said, “he is looking forward to the next.”
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Werk was honored April 9 at Shabbat services and kiddush at Agudath Israel. The speaker, Member of Knesset Yoav Kish, presented him with a certificate recognizing his achievement.
Established in 1982, Sar-El brings volunteers from around the world to lend a hand on bases around the country, undertaking tasks that the army would otherwise have to pay to get done. Werk has been stationed everywhere from Haifa to Ashkelon, doing everything from sorting provisions to repairing machinery — like antennae and shock absorbers — to packaging medical supplies.
Participants must be 17, or 16 if accompanied by a parent or guardian, but there is no upper age limit. As long as prospective volunteers are mentally and physically able (and eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return), they are welcome.
In 2015, 881 people from the United States were Sar-El volunteers. According to Bev Cohen, regional director for Volunteers for Israel, the not-for-profit organization that coordinates U.S. volunteers for Sar-El, about 10 percent of the force are in the 75 and over group. She estimated that the 90 and over category is much smaller — but Werk is not completely alone.
“We have a couple every year” who are nonagenarians, Cohen said. Last year, a 96-year-old woman signed up, but had to withdraw “after breaking her ankle on a hiking trip in Italy.”
It may be obvious that to qualify to serve, people in this age group are, as Cohen put it, “very vital.” They not only need approval from a physician, but like other participants, they must also have a face-to-face interview so screeners can observe their physical and mental health to ensure they can handle what Cohen called the “rough conditions” on the bases. Most of the older volunteers are returnees, like Werk. (About 60 percent of all volunteers are first-timers.)
All participants live on base, are expected to work a full day, and wear uniforms provided by the army. Although generally not permitted off base during their stay, accommodations can be made; this year, Werk will travel to Sderot to attend the wedding of the daughter of an Agudath Israel congregant.
Werk has been making an annual Sar-El trip since 1998, but that year wasn’t his first. In 1992, he and his wife, Doris, were both volunteers; in fact, he said in a recent phone conversation, “she talked me into it.” Doris died in 1996. Werk retired as a manager of a dental laboratory in 1998, and he began his yearly participation.
Why does he keep going back? His motivation is not only his desire to help out the IDF and Israel, it’s also to make amends for choosing to come to the United States instead of Israel after World War II.
Born in a small town near Warsaw, Werk was sent to a forced labor camp in Siberia; he was taken from there by the Russian army and fought against the Germans. He lost many family members in the Holocaust.
After the war, he said, “I was in a DP camp in Italy. They used to have shlihim come in to recruit people to go to Israel — at that time it was called Palestine. For some reason, I got a communication from a cousin in the United States who said, Don’t go [to Palestine]; come here. So I came to the United States.”
After coming to America, he fought with the U.S. Army in the Korean conflict. With all his military experience, he said, “I felt guilty that I was not part of the liberation of the State of Israel. This is my guilt trip.”
Other than volunteering for Sar-El, Werk has traveled to Israel numerous times. Sometimes he’s gone for a family member’s or friend’s wedding or bar mitzva, he’s been part of solidarity missions, and at times he’s accompanied Susan on her annual congregational trip. “I love it there whenever I go,” he said.
But when it comes to volunteering, it’s always Sar-El — because, he said, “I know what to expect. I know the routine.
“I didn’t make aliya when I was younger, so I help out whenever I can,” he said. “And the work is greatly appreciated — the soldiers and leaders always thank us for contributing.”