IT was in August 2002, just days after the end of the Second Lebanon War, that American corporate lawyer Mark Werner arrived in Israel for a three-week stint as a civilian volunteer on an IDF base.
It was hardly a holiday, joining other volunteers who performed routine logistical and maintenance work on the base near Rehovot, south-east of Tel Aviv, called Bilu.
“The work was dirty, sweaty and definitely not sexy,” explained Werner by phone from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It takes people out of their comfort zone, but when you volunteer, you feel as if you are contributing to Israel and making a difference.
“I could write out a cheque to support a pro-Israel cause, but that did not really satisfy me. By physically going to Israel and doing some manual labour, it gave me a great sense of satisfaction.
“I knew that I was doing essential work that frees up a soldier and my presence on a base boosted the soldiers’ morale.”
Werner’s trip to Israel was on a program called Sar-el (a Hebrew acronym for ‘service to Israel’), which was founded in 1983 by retired Israeli General Aharon Davidi in the aftermath of the First Lebanon War.
Werner was hooked on the experience and has returned every year since 2002 to volunteer at a different base, ranging from the Katzbiah base in the Golan to the Selim base near the Palestinian West Bank town of Jenin.
He has written two books based on journals he kept from each trip – Army Fatigues, published in 2008 covering his first four visits, and A Passion For Israel featuring another 14 volunteer experiences, which has just been published by Gefen Publishing House.
Werner, 67, is retired from his legal work but keeps busy as president of Volunteers for Israel (VFI), the American organisation that teams up with Sar-el to place American volunteers on Israeli military bases.
He said he loves the strong camaraderie between the volunteers and soldiers and had booked to return again this year, but had to cancel due to COVID-19.
“It would have been my 19th year in a row, but Sar-el shut down the volunteer program this year,” he said.
“I’m not the only volunteer who goes back each year to Israel – there are many other volunteers who have returned 20 or 30 times.”
On several trips Werner was joined by his son David, who was in his mid-20s and had completed university studies, and described them as wonderful experiences.
“Even the worst base that we stayed at – the Ishai base in the middle of the desert in 2010 described as a hell hole – David talked about that experience more than any other!” said Werner.
“I encourage people who are thinking of volunteering to take their son or daughter or grandchild as it really is a terrific experience to do it together.
“It takes people out of their comfort zone when they volunteer. I worked in an office and was not used to roughing it.”
Usually volunteers are spread around numerous bases in groups of 10-20 people, selected according to language and nationality.
“All the English-speaking volunteers work together and the same applies for those speaking French, German, Russian and other languages,” explained Werner.
“The bases I have been on have had a mix Americans, Canadians, Britons, South Africa, Australians and New Zealanders – it does not always mean a majority of Americans.”
To be eligible volunteers must be aged 17 years or over, with no age limit as long as they can physically do the work.
“The oldest volunteer I met was a 94-year-old American lady who was fit and healthy and was given a sitting job.”
Since 1983 more than 160,000 volunteers from around the world have paid their own way to come to Israel to work on Israeli military bases through the Sar-el program.
Werner kept detailed diaries from all his trips to Israel which provided the basis for his books.
“I started keeping dairies from my first trip. At the end of the day we would be tired from the manual labour and activities, but I would stay up for an hour or two so that I could write my notes,” he recalled.
“When I got back home I typed them up and sent them to the volunteers that I had served with, who thought it was great and suggested that I compile them into a book.
“The greatest source of satisfaction I derived from my first book was the number of people who contacted me to say that reading it had motivated them to become Sar-el volunteers.”
A Passion For Israel was printed in Israel and published by Gefen.