Honoring David Ben-Gurion and my Uncle

By Steve Schaefer

When volunteering for Sar El, my wife and I once were working at a base not far from Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had a second home.  He loved the Negev and believed that the future of the State of Israel depended upon populating the Negev.  On an afternoon excursion, our volunteer group had the opportunity to visit Sde Boker.  With that, another opportunity opened for me – to honour both my Uncle Yakov and David Ben-Gurion.

Uncle Yakov was a pioneer (Halutz) having come to Palestine from Germany as a young man in the late 1920’s.  He had been a member of the Blau-Weis (Blue-White) and later the He-Halutz (Pioneer) youth movements, both Zionist organizations. The latter prepared Jewish youth for making Aliyah (immigrating) to Palestine.  Prior to emigrating to Palestine Uncle Yakov was sponsored by He-Halutz in studying cheese making in Germany and Switzerland.  He spent his life working for dairies in Palestine/Israel managing the manufacture of many different cheeses.  He was sent by the Jewish Agency to Holland to purchase the first automated milking machine for Palestine.

He never ran for political office but was a member of Ben-Gurion’s Labour party.  He often wrote background material for politicians to use in their speeches, and he admired Ben-Gurion greatly. He also admired one of Ben-Gurion’s protégés, Teddy Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem for almost thirty years.

When Uncle Yakov retired, he moved into a seniors home in Tel Aviv which had a very small pottery studio with a small kiln.  He had done some painting before he retired, but he had always wanted to be a sculptor. He especially desired to sculpt a life size bust of Ben-Gurion and give it as a present to Teddy Kollek.  However, the kiln in the studio was too small for a full size bust, so he created the sculpture in two sections, which fit together.

By the time he finished the sculpture he was well into his eighties and no longer able to travel to Jerusalem to present the sculpture to Mayor Kollek. Therefore, he asked my cousin Yudit, his daughter, to present it to Kollek.  However, after many frustrating attempts to get an appointment with Mayor Kollek, my uncle gave up and presented the sculpture to my wife and me.  The sculpture had a place of honour in our house for many years.

On the Sar El excursion to Sde Boker we visited Ben-Gurion’s house, where I saw a copy of the photograph that my uncle had used in creating his sculpture of Ben-Gurion.  I told the docent who was leading our group about my Uncle Yakov and the bust of Ben-Gurion. I suggested that the bust might be better located in the museum at Sde Boker than in my house. I asked whether she thought that Kibbutz Sde Boker would like to have the sculpture.  The following year when my wife and I came to volunteer with Sar El, we first delivered the bust of Ben-Gurion to the museum in Sde Boker.  Now it sits on a pedestal in an acrylic case in the lecture room of the museum with a brief written description of the pioneer cheese maker, who became a sculptor when he was in his seventies. After wandering without a home and living in the Diaspora for many years, my uncle’s “David Ben-Gurion” sculpture is permanently back where I think it always was meant to be – in Ben-Gurion’s kibbutz in the Negev in the State of Israel.

My Bar Mitzvah in the Desert

I have been a regular Sarel participant since 2008 and have always found the experience enjoyable and rewarding. On my most recent tour, however, something unparalleled took place- an experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life. By way of background: My late parents were Hungarian holocaust survivors, the horrors of which included the internment of my father in Auschwitz. Because of this, as often happens in such families, my father downplayed my Jewishness in order to protect me from ever having to endure what he had. I understood and appreciated why my father did as he did, but as I grew older, I increasingly embraced and expressed my Jewishness. The fact remained, though, I never did have a bar mitzvah.
One afternoon after our workday, two of my fellow Sarelniks and I were chatting casually in our dorm and my own history came up. They asked whether I had ever had a bar mitzvah, and I said no. They said they knew of a situation where a bar mitzvah was held on a base for a Jewish man who had never had one.
I will never forget my response. Without a second‘s hesitation, I declared “I want that!“. Clearly, something inside me that had remained dormant for decades in that instant came to the fore. I asked my buddies if they could try and arrange this. The matter got boosted up the chain through our madrichim to the base commander, and at 6:45 a.m. the following Monday, at age 74, I was having my bar mitzvah! This on an IDF base in the middle of the Negev.
The sincere joy expressed by the Israeli soldiers and civilians who attended was palpable. And there was no questioning as to why an old guy like me was doing this, how come I was not conversant with all the rituals, and so on. One of the soldiers took it on himself to mentor me. (He could not speak English and my Hebrew is equivalent to a 3-year-old’s, but fortunately, we could communicate in French.) I did know the blessings for the Torah reading, and they gladly filled in for me regarding the other requirements.
One of the attendees even came armed with a pocketful of traditional hard candies to fling at me as I carried the Torah through the synagogue, and a table was set out back with celebratory snacks for us to enjoy after services.
Apparently, word had got out about this event, such that soldiers who had not been there that morning and whom I had never met, came up to me to wish me mazal tov. I was so elated, and still am, regarding the entire experience.
I want to thank my roomies for planting the seed, the madrichim for carrying the idea further, and the soldiers and commanders involved in organizing the event. And above all, I thank G-d for blessing me in this way.


Marcia’s First Time (Mostly un-censored)

Dear Dale,
This was my first Sar-El experience, and it proved to be above and
beyond my expectations !
The written material was detailed and helpful in preparing for my adventure, the check-in went smoothly, and with some difficulty I was successful in obtaining the all-important Rav Kav card.
I was delighted to find that our accommodations on the base were even better than I had expected, and I appreciated the semi-private room, the indoor plumbing, and the heat/air conditioning on [Base Name Removed] (even  though the heat refused to work when all 12 rooms insisted  on turning on the heat at the same time).  When others joined us part-way through the 3 weeks, from a base where they slept on cots, and had no heat, I understood that [Base Name Removed] really is the Taj Mahal  of Sar El bases.
Our three young Madrichot were charming, resourceful, sympathetic, effective, and completely delightful.  They worked hard to produce up-beat morning news bulletins and interesting evening programs, and did their best to solve our individual and group   problems.  And when our trip to an archeological dig was rained out, they didn’t just give up, but, in conjunction with their advisors on home base, solved the problem, changed the itinerary, and found us a different archeology dig to visit. Somehow I had not known to expect trips and evening programs, so  appreciated them even more. I think that I appreciated the evening programs by former IDF soldiers who spoke to us of their lives and their experiences, especially the young blind soldier, most of all.   Also, I had not anticipated meeting so many interesting fellow “Sar Elniks” from so many countries, (Romania, Hungary, the Netherlands, the Czeck Republic) and I enjoyed their company and learning about their lives.
Our work was basic and often repetitive, (my sister and I worked packaging hemostats), but we understood that it was helpful, and our boss, Avi, was appreciative.  He, and the one other warehouse boss who I met, Moshiach, both expressed their appreciation of the work that the Sar El volunteers do, and the contribution that Sar El makes to Israel’s defense.
Finally, on the negative side, during our three weeks, other Sar Elniks  began arriving at [Base Name Removed] from other bases where “there was   no work for us” and/or “ the living conditions were very rudimentary”.  Unfortunately, negatives often shout louder than positives, and I’m told that while every compliment finds three listeners, every  complaint finds ten. For me, if circumstances allow me to return, I might consider requesting [Base Name Removed] , (thus limiting my experience), but for others, those negatives might dissuade them from joining Sar El altogether.   I imagine that those in charge are already quite aware of this small difficulty and are  working to solve this minor problem.

Marvin’s Feedback: The good and the bad by the numbers.

Hi Dale,
What can I tell you? Let’s see…
1) This was actually my 3rd trip not my fourth. Next year will be my

2) I was at [base name removed]* again — the Sar-El Hilton. This has been the only base I have served on. After listening to other people, I may request that this be the only base I be sent to.

3) A lot of people complained about the food. I didn’t, as I loved the food.

4) Accommodations were great. I found the cots extremely comfortable and slept really well. Also, I found the showers (a real necessity after doing physical work all day) to be great.

5) The madrichot were, as usual, excellent. The group we had were very entertaining.

6) I worked for the same supervisor that I had last year. She is very efficient and a joy to work for. There was a lot of work; the days went by very fast; and I enjoyed it all.

7) Airport arrival was a problem as there was no Sar-El reps available when I arrived. I ended up wandering around a lot (along with a number of other Sar-El-niks) trying to find someone, but eventually they arrived. It would be better if there could be a sign or something to let us know where to congregate.

8) This year we had 2 outings. There was a special 1-day trip to an archeological dig. It was fascinating. But I did feel a little guilty in abandoning my workplace supervisor for the day. I think it would be good to let the supervisors know well in advance when the volunteers will not be there.

9) On the negative side, we had 3 nights of special speakers. Too many in my opinion. But that’s just me.

10) Overall, I had a great time. For me, this is a vacation!

Take care,


*Editor’s note.. as requested by the IDF, we don’t publish the names of bases. We also don’t publish the full name of the volunteer to protect their privacy.

Another “First” for Ricki F.

This was my first experience with Sar-El. Although the weather was very rainy and colder than I expected my time was wonderful. I met beautiful people and the work in the warehouse with Amnon was better than I could imagine. The 2 outings were great. The food was very good. I ate very well. The matricot were so sweet and helpful, especially little Noa in the 1st 3 week session and in the 2nd session all 3 girls were more than helpful. I will definitely do Sar-El again.

On my weekends I spoke with people from all over and told them about the program. They were very interested and I hope some end up volunteering as well. I have only good to talk about my experience, even with the disappearing toilet paper and loss of heat my last night. The leaders immediately got us extra blankets though I did not need one. I thank Sor-El for the opportunity to go to this program. My only difficulty is the cost of air fare from Canada. It may be a few years until I can make it back, but I will do so.

Best regards. Ellen Ricki F.

Just A Meeting

Translated from the orginal Dutch by Ada Van Oijen, this story originally appeared on the website of a Dutch organization called Christians for Israel.

Somewhere in Tel Aviv we met. She heard me speak Dutch and spoke to me. Her story is one with a golden edge.

80-year-old Ada van Oijen is in Israel to do volunteer work at Sar-El. Sar-El (Hebrew: שר-אל, from: Sheirut Le’Yisrael = service for Israel) is a volunteer project of the Israeli army. The volunteers are there to support and mainly work in logistics, maintenance, catering, provisioning and medical services.

“I was a professional soldier in the Dutch army and always worked for the Air Force. I once read “I sleep with my gun,” written by Israeli Yael Dayan. It is about a Jewish girl who joins the Israeli army, a beautiful story. That book touched me deeply, so I decided to enter the Dutch army when I was nineteen. In 1990 I first heard about Sar-El. Its founder came to my hometown of Vlissingen to talk about it. It appealed to me immediately and I signed up. You pay for the flight yourself, accommodation is provided.
My love for Israel and the Jewish people is deep. When I was five or six years old, my father told me about the Second World War. It has always stayed with me. So many innocent people who were killed. I could never get rid of that again.
It may sound strange, but I feel Jewish at heart and it will always be that way. I am right behind Israel, whatever happens.

Thirty-six years and seven months I served in the Dutch army. In 1994 my commander thought it was so fantastic that I always gave up my days off to work for the Israeli army that he nominated me for a royal honor. And on 29 April 1994, I received it in the presence of the troops at Woensdrecht Air Base. I was as proud as a peacock.

I have been coming to Israel since 1964. During the six-day war in 1967, I cried like a little child, I thought I would never see my Israeli friends again. Day and night I was glued to the radio, I did not sleep. On my car I had a sticker with the text: I am behind Israel. My friends said I was crazy, they were afraid that my car would be destroyed. I didn’t care and nothing ever happened. This year is the 29th time I have worked as a volunteer for Sar-El. I always join a group from Canada, now we know each other well. I hope I can continue this for many years. ”

Couldn’t have been better

My Sar El experience could not have been better than it was. We were a small group of 9 close in age, give or take 10 years, and all on the same page vis a vis Israel and our feelings about it. The base we were on was new, clean, with many comforts we are used to and appreciated like A/C, and hot water.
Our madrichot were wonderful, very accommodating and friendly, providing great programs in the evening. The fact that it was a combat base made it interesting for those interested in guns and learning about handling them. The work was not too demanding, but we did feel that what we did was useful for the soldiers and very appreciated.
I would love to do Sar El again but know that there is only one first time and I would always be comparing the next experience to this one, which as I said, was wonderful.  I keep reflecting back on it, and feel so lucky to have had this time there.
I am encouraging others to do it or at least to find out more about it.
Thank you for this exceptional experience in Israel
Hynda F.  Toronto, Ontario

SAR-EL exceeded my expectations!

This is my second trip with SAR-EL and it exceeded my expectations!
I very much appreciated the new accommodations at *base name redacted* especially the air conditioning, considering in the heat of September. The food was great, and the work, what I had expected. I was delighted to have been in such an international group- so many interesting people and so much to learn from them. Because people from so many countries came to volunteer for Israel, I felt that Israel was less alone in it’s fight against it’s many enemies.

The madrichem were helpful and pleasant. The trip to the was very meaningful, considering that you saw the very structure, in your walks in Jaffa, that were shown in the movies and exhibits. It’s too bad that we were only allowed one hour to see the exhibits.

I certainly will make every effort to return and to tell as many people as possible about this wonderful program. It was an honor and very poignant to sing at the memorial service.
Sandra L. Victoria, BC

*New* Arrival & Weekend Policies:

Airport Arrival Time

Please note that due to so many late arrivals, we are going to insist that all volunteers make their travel plans so that they are on site in the airport no later than 12 noon on the program start date. We understand this is a process and we will be flexible for the next few months but its really important for now that we get our volunteers on the bus and to the bases earlier than we currently have.

Weekend Return Time

Also, on this note, we must insist that volunteers are ready to return to base on Sundays following the weekend by before 9am at Savidor Station. This has been a growing problem for the IDF and the fellow volunteers whom are waiting longer and longer each Sunday so buses will depart at 9am sharp on Sundays and late arrivals will have to arrange their own transportation at their own cost.