Joan Sudmann Shapiro
Editor’s note: Since arriving at the Jewish Federation of Omaha in early May, Nate Shapiro has been a valuable addition to the JFO development team where he has taken on responsibilities focusing on younger generations of our Jewish community, the Partnership2 Gether program with Israel, preparation for the 2017 Annual Campaign, and getting to know the many wonderful people that define Jewish Omaha.
When we packed our 12-year-old son, Nathan Shapiro, off to Camp Young Judaea Midwest, my husband, Charlie, and I were like any other parents. We hoped he would take his Jewish values to heart, and develop a strong, positive Jewish identity. We expected him to come home with mosquito bites, a duffel full of filthy clothes and a few wild stories about his camp adventures. We did not anticipate that a seed of commitment to Israel would be planted that led Nate, 10 years later, into Nahal, a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces.
I wholeheartedly respected Nate’s idealism, courage, sense of history and his honorable desire to protect and defend the people of Israel. But as a mother, it was tough to cope with my son being in harm’s way. His father and I both expressed concerns when he began discussing his intentions with us. We asked him to spend some time in Israel before making his decision. He was a student at UNL at the time, and complied with our wishes by arranging a study abroad semester at the University of Haifa. After that semester, he still felt strongly about joining the IDF, and we gave him our blessing. I was aware that Nate might view my maternal hesitation as a lack of support for his decision, so I began to search for a way to show him that I was behind him 100%. I found what I was looking for in Sar-El, literally “Service to Israel”, also known as Volunteers for Israel (VFI).
According to the journal I received when I arrived in Israel on June 1, 2009 for my three weeks of service on an army base near Ramla, “VFI is a non-profit, non-political organization whose mission is to connect Americans to Israel through hands-on, civilian work in hospitals, nursing homes, and on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bases.” There were 13 people in our group of volunteers: eight of us hailed from various parts of the U.S.; two were from Norway; one from Montreal; one from The Netherlands and one was a Frenchman who lives in Spain and works for British Airways. There were six Jews and seven Christians in our group; four of us were women; and we ranged in age from mid-thirties to early seventies. There were four who had volunteered with Sar-El previously. We were a diverse group with one thing in common: support for Israel.
We slept in barracks and ate in the mess hall. We were issued standard IDF uniforms, which we were required to wear daily. A young female soldier named Gavriella was assigned to our group as our madracha: our leader and guide. She showed us around, explained our duties, answered our questions, and provided wonderful educational programs for us in the evenings after supper. We worked each week from Monday morning through Thursday afternoon. We re-wired headsets, fixed antennas, and sanded down radio casings for tanks, all of which was re-purposed Viet Nam-era American equipment. It was hot, and there was no air conditioning, but there were a few old fans. We sweated and chatted amiably while we worked. In the shop, we were under the supervision of a young soldier named Nati, who was the shop foreman. His English was not quite as good as Gavriella’s – she was born in the U.S. – but he trained us well and helped us to do what needed to be done. A couple of afternoons, we were given a break from our duties and taken on an interesting sightseeing excursion.
We were free to make our own plans to leave the base for the Sabbath, so on Thursday afternoons, I took a one-hour bus ride to Tel Aviv, to meet up with my son, Nate. When I first caught sight of him in the bus station, he looked like the soldier he had become, strong and lean, smiling and confident, with his weapon slung over his shoulder. I felt a rush of amazement and pride at the young man he now was. Together, we rode another four hours on a bus to Rosh Pina, in the north, where his kibbutz was located. As a Lone Soldier (a non-Israeli volunteer), he had been assigned to a host family, which was his “home away from home” for his weekend passes. They were very gracious and it was a real comfort to me to know that he had an Israeli “mom” who cared about him. We had Shabbat dinners on Friday nights at their home on the kibbutz. On Sunday mornings, Nate would wake me at 4:20 a.m. to catch our bus back to Tel Aviv, and from there we returned to our respective bases.
Views vary with regard to Israeli politics and the Palestinian conflict, but Sar-El provides all volunteers an opportunity to learn about Israel and its history, and to experience the day-to-day reality that, without the IDF, Israel would not exist. It was obvious that our support meant a great deal to the Israelis. I returned home with heightened love and awe for Israel and gratitude for the IDF soldiers, including my son. Aura, Nate’s host mom, later wrote to me, following Nate’s beret ceremony, “In front of a thousand or so people your son was awarded the Outstanding Excellent Soldier of his company.” She shared that his direct commander told her that Nate is a “Tzadik” – one of the righteous. “I know what he means,” Aura went on to say, “the way he’s always doing the right thing in the most simple straightforward way.” These words are music to a mother’s ears.
I enjoyed every minute of my three weeks with Sar El. I am still in touch with some of the people I met there. If you are looking for a way to connect with the Jewish homeland in a meaningful way, I encourage you to volunteer with Sar-El.