Last month, Art Fredman of Millburn recruited his friends Larry Kantor and Dave Golush, all members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, to join the Israel Defense Forces. That’s quite a feat, considering they are all in or near their 70s.
The secret is Sar-El, a program that enables healthy civilians from around the world to “enlist” for a stint with the IDF. The activities they lend a hand with include sweeping barracks, packing supplies, and performing other support tasks.
The Nov. 9-14 IDF stint marked a first for Golush and Kantor, but it was Fredman’s fifth time volunteering with Sar-El. The U.S.-based Volunteers for Israel handles recruitment for the program.
Golush, of Westfield, said in an e-mail, “I went to show support for the soldiers of the IDF. Seeing kids with M-16s helped me appreciate the sacrifices Israelis make and we take for granted.”
In a phone conversation, Kantor said he “wanted to do more than writing a check, which anyone can do.”
Kantor, a South Orange resident, went into the adventure a little skeptical about whether he could adjust to the accommodations. “There was no washing machine or clean linens, and there were 10 guys in a barracks the size of my bedroom,” he said. “Picture 10 guys snoring at the same time. It’s like a symphony. It’s one thing when you’re 20, but when you’re 70, it’s different.
“But,” he said, “I dealt with it.”
Over 300 volunteers from around the world began their tour at Ben-Gurion Airport, where they received their marching orders.
In his various stints with Sar-El, Fredman has been assigned to bases in different parts of the country. On this trip, the three friends were sent to a base in the Negev, somewhere between Dimona and Be’er Sheva (more specific locations cannot be given for security reasons), part of a group of 21 that included volunteers from Austria, Haiti, England, and across the United States.
“For five days we sorted munitions,” said Fredman. “It was a salvage operation to prepare the ‘leftovers’ for melting down and recycling. It was very rigorous physical work, since with munitions, everything is heavy.”
The local environment offered a stark landscape. “Being in the desert, such an isolated place, for a week, I appreciated the expansiveness and beauty,” said Fredman. “Of course, that’s because it wasn’t summer.” But for him, the purpose of the trip is not to admire the scenery. “We’re freeing up Israeli soldiers from doing routine unskilled labor,” he said. “And joining soldiers doing what they do is very special. It’s the right way to see Israel.” He added, “I don’t go for me. I go because I like to show Israelis who feel alone, especially on a military base, that there are those around the world who think about them and care about them.”
It was a comment from one of the soldiers that Kantor remembers most vividly. “There were only about 40 soldiers on the entire base, and only a handful [of them] live there; the rest commute. So we really got to know them. And one day, one soldier said to us, ‘We feel so alone. We’re glad you’re here.’ He didn’t mean he feels alone because his parents are 100 miles away, but that Israel is isolated in the world. It’s the support we offered,” said Kantor.
During their stay, the men noticed an unused basketball court on the base, but, Golush learned, the soldiers had no basketballs. He recruited someone who was going into the nearby town to make a stop in a local store, and before long, the IDF members had soccer balls and basketballs, according to Fredman.
“Within an hour, people were playing basketball,” said Fredman. And then they noticed a first lieutenant dribbling and shooting with particular skill. “It turned out he was a professional player,” said Fredman.
At the end of their time on the base, the trio did a little touring. They hiked Nahal David, a stream in the Dead Sea region, where, Golush said, the sight of large families spanning three or four generations on a visit to the tourist attraction was “inspiring.” He added, “Flying a kite with a friend’s son on the beach of Tel Aviv while so many of my friends were concerned about my safety” made him wonder if he should laugh or cry.
On their final day in Israel, they headed to the town of Sderot and the moshav of Netiv HaAsara not far from the border with Gaza. In Sderot they met with social workers at the Young Adult Center, which is supported in part by the Ness Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The social workers help children affected by the trauma of shelling from Gaza and the wartime scramble to bomb shelters.
But it was visiting a family in Netiv HaAsara that offered the “emotional high” of the trip, as Golush put it. The family included three children under the age of five.
“The home of the family was literally 100 yards from the wall separating Gaza from Israel,” Kantor said. “The young man took us right up to the wall, and then showed us his tomato plants. You cannot come away from that without feeling a sense of awe and determination. It’s remarkable. I could never do that.”