First Person

Volunteering on IDF base, Tucsonan fulfills lifelong dream of living like a sabra

Tucsonan Charlotte Low with “the Boss” who oversaw her volunteer job on an Israel Defense Forces base.

This is not your worried bubbe’s idea of a tourist tour of the Holy Land. For that you get one picture on a camel (careful!) and stay in four-star hotels. If you crave an insider’s view, being a Volunteer For Israel is adventurous and transformational. Serious fun.

My own VFI task of unwrapping, re-wrapping and inserting medical scissors into plastic envelopes for six hours a day, four days a week maybe doesn’t sound like a float on The Dead Sea. But I hear no complaints from any of our group of 27 international volunteers doing heavier jobs.

We’re a focused, sometimes slap-happy assembly line on an Israeli Defense Force base.

Most of us are Jews (religious or secular), some Christians along with those who check the box marked “Other.” We’re here to provide necessary grunt work that frees actual IDF soldiers to spend more time in training to fight.

Our task is collating medical supplies that make up portable field operating kits that ultimately slip perfectly into a military backpack.

Despite sore backs or tushies we share the knowledge that one medic plus one of our backpacks can save an Israeli life. When there has been a surplus, one six-time volunteer tells me, the kits have been sent to Haiti, New Orleans or other disaster areas.

We’re here in the week before Pesach through VFI, an American nonprofit organization that works in partnership with Sar-El: The National Project for Volunteers for Israel.

We are not in the army, but eat in the mess hall, sleep in the barracks and wear the uniform of the IDF on base during our workweek. On weekends, we are on our own with a free hostel in Tel Aviv available (no uniforms off base). Volunteers sign up for one to four weeks at a time throughout the year.

As a cultural mixed bag we have a potential for arguing. These possible eruptions are checked by the guidelines our three 20-something female IDF program leaders present. We are told not to talk politics or religion, and no swearing!

We learn there will be no going off base except for field trips. One runner says he just circles our barracks until he hits three miles. Free time is after lunch and dinner — about an hour for each. Evenings also include an educational program.

Our schedules for cleaning duties in the barracks are posted on our separate male and female floors. Non-mandatory breakfast is at 7 a.m.  I’m soon addicted to chocolate spread, much like Nutella, smeared on white bread. Flag raising and singing of the Israeli National Anthem (which most of us struggle to learn) is at 7:30 a.m. We get snippets of news of the day — national and international.

A treat each week is an off-base field trip. Ours is to the newly opened (in May 2017) National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem, where a spiral wall of bricks personalizing each of the 23,000 fallen Israeli soldiers since pre-state days opens to the sky. Outside, the Mount Herzl cemetery is filled with men and women who died for Israel, many of the graves decorated with surfboards, graduation pictures, and other evidence that theirs were young lives cut short. The hall’s empty bricks for those yet to die and be inscribed are haunting.

In our barracks we each have roommates. Mine is Diana, a mechanical engineer who came to the United States as a Ukrainian refugee. After quick exchanges of our life stories we’re buddies.

Later I meet petite Helen, from Cannes, on her 12th mission with VFI. She is going to get her hair cut before she leaves — I ask why, as a tres chic French woman, she chooses to have her hair styled in Tel Aviv? “Because I am a Zionist!” she said proudly. “I want my money to go to Israel.”

Then I talk with Jeffry, a registered nurse and an Episcopalian from the United States. For him, duty to humanitarian work crosses all religious lines.

Down the hall are six Christian women from Macon, Georgia, come in support of the Jews. One, Angela, says, “They’re a blessed people and this is a holy land.”

I came because as a 12-year-old on an Arizona ranch I wanted to be a sabra on an Israeli kibbutz, helping us to become a nation. The sabra part is, of course, impossible, but to be in Israel for the first time is better than I dreamed 58 years ago.

To live in our group’s own personal Israel is to become part of a tight, unbreakable circle. Some of us will remember. Some will return over and over again.

To find out more about Volunteers for Israel, contact Mindy Franklin, Arizona regional manager, at

Charlotte Lowe is a freelance writer in Tucson.