By Shira Hartman
As soon as winter is over, students begin planning for spring break. They scramble to figure out whether to go to a resort, work extra hours, or catch up on all of the school work they have procrastinated on. Although those options seemed appealing, I decided to take a different route.
Along with seven other students from Simmons, I volunteered in Israel, touring Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and volunteering on an army base with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). During our volunteering program, we were grouped with 29 Northeastern University students.
In our first weekend in Israel, we stayed in Tel Aviv at the Golden Beach Hotel. We explored street art, enjoyed amazing food, soaked in the culture, and swam on the beach. From the first day, it was amazing and thrilling to be back in my homeland.
Later on Sunday, we met the officers that were going to lead us on the program. We were sent to a reserve paratrooper base in the middle of Israel and were thrust into volunteering right away. The first job we were assigned to was to paint around 200 storage boxes with the colors of the specific unit we were assigned to. This may seem easy, but it was not, as we needed to be organized and strategized. We decided as a team to make assembly lines which made the process go faster. Covered in paint and exhausted, we felt fulfilled in our first day of work.
On Monday, we learned about what combat soldiers needed to carry on a daily basis as we were assigned to pack their backpacks; this is not a simple job if you have never been a soldier. As a team, we needed to figure out what to have in order to go out into the field. The officers in charge of us came to see how we were doing, and overall they thought we did a good job despite missing a couple of pieces. As a combat soldier, you need your sleeping bag, your helmet, your protective vest, and so many other important pieces of equipment. This was a humbling but important lesson we wouldn’t soon forget.
We also learned about our officers, where they came from and why they joined the specific unit that oversees volunteers, called “Sar-El.” They told us that they wanted to educate individuals about Israel, why Israel has an active army, as well as give volunteers a more realistic sense of Israeli society than the misleading (and usually incorrect) views the media offers.
On Tuesday, we helped count inventory and clean the tools used for artillery. While we were cleaning, we talked to soldiers who are about our age, and asked them questions about Israel and the army; they then asked us about the States, especially Massachusetts, and what it was like to live in Boston. They were so intrigued that we could begin college at 18 years old, the same year that they serve their country.
Can you imagine war and protecting Israel at 18 years old while we are cramming and studying for exams? I think that it is amazing that each Israeli has this internal motivation to succeed in the army. I have it too, and I am thinking of joining after graduating from Simmons College. I talked to one of our volunteer supervisors who also graduated from college in the U.S. with a communications degree and chose to move to Israel and serve in the army. She actually declined a position to be director of social media in the IDF because she felt like it was her duty to work with volunteers on an educational unit instead. I thought that was very courageous.
On Thursday, it was time to say goodbye, and we had a ceremony where our officers gave us certificates of volunteering our time to the IDF. It was sad but also very memorable; we were able to meet with the Executive Director of the Sar-El program as well as with one of the top commanders of the base. We were able to ask him questions about his day-to-day life in the army and also learn about the historic legacy this particular base and unit had in the early years of Israel’s statehood and in the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.
The bus picked us up and drove us to Jerusalem which was our last stop before flying back to Boston. In Jerusalem, we took an extensive tour of the Old City and were able to see the Church of The Holy Sepulchre, which was amazing to see and experience. We also went to the Western Wall on Friday evening before welcoming in Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), which was an unforgettable moment.
While I was writing my note to place into the Wall (a traditional prayer to God), emotions started flooding in and I began crying. I never cried before at the Western Wall. It made me realize that while I am not able to come to Israel often, I cherish every moment I spend in my homeland.
Overall, this trip made me, and, the other Simmons participants realize that we should not take things for granted. Every day is a precious gift given to us. We learned about a different culture as well as a unique transitional lifestyle for emerging adults who are exactly our age. This made me realize that the IDF is more important to me now than it ever was before this trip.