For local men, volunteering on IDF base satisfying way to see, support Israel

Tucsonans Alan Dankwerth, left, and Mike Jacobson at an Israel Defense Forces base in northern Israel (Courtesy Mike Jacobson)

Longtime Tucson friends Alan Dankwerth and Mike Jacobson had both been to Israel before. But their trip in October was different. Leaving their wives behind, they spent a couple of weeks working at an Israel Defense Forces base in northern Israel, not far from the Golan Heights, through the Volunteers for Israel program, which is linked to an Israeli program known as Sar-El.

For security reasons, says Dankwerth, a 75-year-old business consultant, it wasn’t until they met their Sar-El guide at the airport in Tel Aviv that they learned they were headed to a base in the Upper Galilee, where their jobs ranged from raking leaves and scraping paint to more exciting tasks such as oiling tank parts, logging serial numbers of new M16s received from the United States, and testing communications equipment.

“Israeli soldiers are very concerned, as we should be, about their equipment, making sure it’s in top shape. We don’t have a second chance,” says Dankwerth.

The impetus to take part in the Sar-El program came several years ago, says Jacobson, 64, a semi-retired physician. “I was looking for an opportunity to go back to Israel … but I wanted to go not as a tourist, to do something different, either to stay there for an extended period of time to study or to volunteer.” Through Internet searches, he and Dankwerth found the Sar-El program.

“I was able to give back something other than money,” says Jacobson. “I make contributions every year to different Jewish organizations locally and internationally, but this is the first time I ever did something physical, personal, that took my time and personal effort to accomplish for Israel, for the IDF. I felt good about that.”

The Sar-El program attracts volunteers from all over the world, and the camaraderie in their group made for a very pleasant experience, says Dankwerth. Among those volunteering alongside the Tucsonans were a mother, father and son from Australia, he says, adding that 25 percent of Sar-El’s volunteers are not Jewish. “We had people from Norway, Sweden, Ecuador, Germany, you name it, and from all over the United States, many of whom are repeats,” he says, affirming that he’d like to volunteer again, though probably not as soon as next year.

Dankwerth is a decade older than Jacobson. “But he’s in super shape,” says Jacobson. “He has a background in fitness, he’s a black belt in martial arts. So the work

wasn’t an issue for him. He led the parade as far as physical stamina.”

Sar-El has “a fairly significant vetting process,” including an interview, letters of recommendation and a physical, says Dankwerth. While the majority of volunteers are at or near retirement age, the program takes volunteers even in their late 80s and 90s, he notes.

The volunteers had their weekends free, from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, with bus transportation provided to Tel Aviv. Dankwerth and Jacobson spent one weekend in Tel Aviv, and their second weekend turned into an extended stay in Jerusalem, because their return to the United States was delayed by Hurricane Sandy.

Dankwerth enjoyed talking to Israelis on and off the base, and in the weeks leading up to the U.S. election, was surprised to find that most were pro-Obama. “They feel he’s done a lot for Israel,” he says.

While the free time for travel makes Sar-El an attractive package, the main draw is being able to support Israel, says Dankwerth. “You walk the talk.”

Volunteers for Israel provides opportunities to assist both military and civilian agencies in Israel. For more information, visit www.vfi-usa.org.