JLife’s Holly Thackeray met with Leeds businessman Philip Dante to find out about his week spent volunteering alongside the Israeli Defence Force.
No internet, basic accommodation and a lot of rain. A military base in North Israel was a world away from Yorkshire life and the traditional Israel tourist traps for Philip Dante, who runs a personal, made-to-order jewellery service in Leeds. But, when I speak to the businessman, he is enthusiastic about his recent week of voluntary work on a Sar-El scheme, which allows non-Israel natives to provide non-military support to the Israel Defence Force (IDF).
Quizzed about the motivation and inspiration behind his trip, he explains: “Israel is very close to my heart. I felt this would be an opportunity to do something hands-on and in touch with Israelis. It is enriching and rewarding, but completely different to any other experience.”
The work runs from Sunday to Thursday, and Philip explains that a typical day on the base runs from around 7.50am to 9.30pm: “The day starts with the flag raising, followed by breakfast and then we normally started work about 9am until 12pm for lunch, which is the main meal of the day. In the evenings, after dinner, we would have what the leaders call an ‘activity’, which was a meeting of the group of volunteers and two of the leaders, where they might give us a Hebrew lesson or a talk about the Israeli army.”
In the daily routine, work includes the sorting of uniforms and kitchen equipment, as well as the preparation of vegetables for lunch, and the loading and unloading of trucks: “Our first afternoon we spent in the storage warehouse unit that contains all the spare, surplus uniforms. We had to spend three hours sorting through the uniforms – shirts, trousers, jackets – and folding and packing them in bags and in sizes.”
Unlike many other voluntary schemes, there is no upper age limit, though prospective participants must provide a character reference from someone in a position of respect within the community and a letter of medical clearance from a doctor. Volunteer service Sar-El was founded in 1982, but Philip was surprised by how little is known about the scheme in both the UK and Israel, and is seeking to help promote the experience within the local community: “The surprising thing is there is so little knowledge of it here. But, also, before I went on the base and teamed up with the group, the Israelis I was meeting over the weekend – most of them had never heard of it either. There have been over a 100,000 volunteers on this scheme over the last 30-odd years so it’s not a new thing.”
Although, as Philip details, hard work is required and life is not a Red Sea resort beach: “It was raining, so we had to work indoors. Everybody thinks you go to Israel and it is boiling hot – well it is – but it is not in February. You could be anywhere in the country doing any kind of work that they require.”
Regarding the accommodation, the jeweller added: “Living accommodation is basic, as in any army. You’re not treated to any special treatment or special facilities. The men and women are kept in separate buildings, too. So it is not luxury, there are no en-suite shower rooms or any of that.”
A frequent visitor to Israel in the past, this was the first time Philip tried his hand at the scheme, and he details his most memorable aspects of the trip: “The most lasting impression is the reaction of the soldiers on the base, bearing in mind that I’ve never served in the army. They were so grateful and thankful and they wanted to talk to us. They’d come up to you and ask you ‘where you are from? What do you do?’ ”
Group dynamics also play a key part in the experience, as Philip details: “When we met on the first Sunday morning we were 11 people from different backgrounds, and even continents, concentrating on ourselves and thoughts. When we were leaving the base we had become a tightly bonded group and we broke into Hebrew songs such as Shalom Aleichem, David Melech Yisrael and Am Yisrael Chai, and I know that it was an emotional moment for us all.”
For any budding volunteers, Philip also outlines some extra tips to go along with Sar-El’s online packing guide: “I would have liked to have a pair of binoculars with me to see a bit more of the countryside. Instant coffee too, because they only serve Turkish coffee.”
Now back among home comforts, Philip reflects on what he calls a chance to: “Actually see Israel on the ground floor, not the penthouse. I just thoroughly enjoyed it, to do anything that makes a contribution.”
For further details on what Sar-El offer, visit Sar-el.org, or contact Manchester-based British organiser, Jennifer Goldstone, at email@example.com.