Five women swapped their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and grandmothers to volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) for two weeks last October and their lives just haven't been the same since.
The enthusiasm and elation are explosive when they have that rare opportunity to come together as a group to rehash their adventure. There is no room large enough to contain the belly-laughs and deep-seeded camaraderie. It's an experience that has forever bonded and cemented their friendship.
Not surprisingly, then, the most difficult task they faced was saying "good-bye" not to family but to the soldiers, civilians and other volunteers they encountered while working on the Netafim Supply Base in Israel.
Sinatra may have left his heart in San Francisco, but these five adventurers left their hearts in what they think of as "God's country."
Mountain Area residents, Mary Somerville, Gayle Fannin, Doris Downey and Vivian Patterson, along with "adopted mountain" friend Sharon Fernald (of Illinois) are passionate women. They love life, family, and country, but what they are most passionate about is their faith. All have a zeal for God, and are committed in their effort to apply His word to their daily lives. Because of this staunch devotion, an experience of a lifetime came about quite naturally and easily.
It was during a Christians United for Israel conference in Washington D.C. that Fannin just happened to eavesdrop on a conversation about volunteering through SAR EL (Service for Israel). Even though they had traveled there multiple times, volunteering for Israel was something the women had wanted to do for several years.
They looked into it and before they knew it, they were filling out applications, taking physicals, getting letters of recommendations and being interviewed a very thorough process to ensure each applicant was a good match for the program.
Amazed that they actually received the necessary clearance, the team of five met in Philadelphia, and flew to Tel Aviv, a 12-hour flight. They were stationed to a supply base with huge warehouses, and were issued IDF uniforms that they needed to wear at all times while on base. Since most of the soldiers spoke English, communication was not an issue. For those who didn't, a form of sign language (akin to Charades) was used to convey messages.
To distinguish the volunteers from the soldiers, blue epaulets were pinned to the uniform of each volunteer, as they stood tall and proud, by Base Commander Colby.
"It was a sign of acceptance, a rite of passage, a welcome to the base and a message of appreciation," Downey said. "We were called up separately and the commander, after buttoning the epaulets in place, expected that I would turn and shake his hand, but I hugged him instead. He seemed a little shocked at first, but since so many of the volunteers had the same reaction, he began enjoying the gesture."
The five, all over age 65 but for Patterson, age 44, quickly settled into their daily routines. Their 8-hour work day consisted of cleaning tools (such as huge wrenches used on tanks), removing rust, recycling, counting, and repackaging. They removed tools and parts from huge dirty containers, sorted the parts into bins depending on the material (metal, rubber, or plastic), or type (gun clips, nuts or bolts), and then cleaned the containers. They counted items for anything from jeep parts to tools to screws and bolts, ensuring everything was there that needed to be there prior to being shipped out on pallets. While it was not complicated work, it was menial and tedious. Still, anything they were asked to do was done for the love of God and with a ready smile. The consensus was that if these soldiers had to go to war tomorrow, they would go with the best equipment possible.
"We wanted to be a blessing to these soldiers, to be their grandmothers for a short time, and we wanted them to see that we would do anything they asked of us joyously just to show the love that we have for them," Somerville explained.
"In the Bible verse Genesis 12:3, it says 'I will bless those who bless Israel and whoever curses you, I will curse.' Well, I want to bless Israel in any way that I can," Fernald added, "and I also want to be on the side of blessings not curses. Just to work side-by-side with the soldiers and civilians was amazing."
During free time, the women enjoyed mingling with the troops, who exuded true spirit and a lust for life. Morning and evenings, their leaders (madrichas) taught classes covering the history of Israel or the IDF. There were also Hebrew lessons for simple words or phrases.
The highlight of their day came early about 7 a.m., when each was asked (on different days) to raise the Israeli flag at morning inspection while Israel's national anthem "Hatikvah" (the hope) played over the loud speaker an experience that brought joy to their hearts and tears to their eyes.
"Raising the flag and hearing the Hatikvah made me think of the Holocaust," Patterson recalled. "Here I was standing among these young soldiers with the words 'never again' reverberating in my heart. It was a moment that blew me away."
When it came to living conditions, the women expected the worse, and made the best of what they had. The five slept in a 12 x 12 room with nothing but wooden beds, thin mattresses and no pillows. Open suitcases, with overflowing items, laid helter-skelter in the middle of the room, until shoved under the beds to create a narrow path to the door.
"It was wall-to-wall beds," Downey said. "Four of them were completely made of wood. There was no pillows, no box springs, no mattresses, just thin pieces of foam on top. The other bed was just a fold-out cot. There was no closet not even a shelf to put things on so we lived out of our suitcases. The communal showers were pretty much pipes coming out of the wall with a steady stream of cool-to-lukewarm water."
Morning and evening meals consisted of cucumbers and tomatoes, along with a hard-boiled egg.
"Sometimes, they would scramble the egg and fold it over, and that's what they called an omelet," Downey commented, prompting another uproar of laughter.
The main and only warm meal of the day was lunch, usually a kosher meat dish, served in the mess hall. They shared all their meals with the Israeli soldiers, civilians and other volunteers. Because no coffee was served at any time, the women would wake at 4:30 a.m. and make their own instant coffee using a single cup and heating coil Somerville had brought with her.
From Thursday afternoon to Sunday morning, it was mandatory that everyone leave the base for Shabbat (Sabbath). In anticipation of this, the women had planned their volunteering to coincide with Somerville's husband, John (a retired Marine Corps colonel and the central region coordinator for Christians United for Israel) who was there giving a guided tour of the country. This allowed them to meet up with him and his group during their days off base.
"We had a wonderful room by the Sea of Galilee with a bed (including pillows), a private shower (with hot water and a shower head)," Downey said. "We went to the Jordan River where many of the tour group were baptized ... and then went on to Jerusalem."
All found the overall conditions off base not very different from the U.S.
"This is not a third-world country," Fannin said. "The middle class living standards are very much like ours, except more people live in apartments and residents must have a bomb shelter."
"Northern Israel reminds me so much of our central valley," Patterson added, "because there are so many orchards and it's so incredibly green. Tel Aviv reminds me of any metropolis city here in the states. I felt very safe in Israel and had no anxiety or worries seeing soldiers on the streets carrying M16 rifles ... it's the norm."
In square miles, Israel is the combined size of Fresno and Madera counties, and can sit inside California 12-to-13 times. Even though it is surrounded by deserts, Israel is a surviving, thriving and productive oasis.
Out of necessity and with the assistance of U.S. funding, Israel invented and currently utilizes a mobile iron dome (which Somerville referred to as the "hand of God") a device to deflect incoming short-range missiles and rockets, which pose a threat to the civilian population. The IDF differs from most worldwide armed forces. In Israel, every boy and girl must serve in the Army after high school three years for boys and two years for girls. Even many U.S. Jewish residents return to Israel to serve after graduation. Since its founding, the IDF has been specifically designed to match Israel's unique security situation, and it is considered one of the society's most prominent institutions, influencing the country's economy, culture and political scene.
"I've been to Israel six times now and it never gets any easier leaving in fact, I think it gets harder. I leave a little bit of my heart there each time," Downey reflected. "You can't read your Bible and love your God without loving His land, Israel and His chosen people the Jews. But, when you actually go to Israel, that's when that deep-seeded love sets in. You fall in love ... and this last visit, we really got to connect with Israel's young people who lost grandparents and great-grandparents during the Holocaust just because they were Jews."
"It was truly a blessing to live life like the Israelis do. Everyone should visit Israel to experience what we've experienced firsthand," Somerville said. "We're setting our church (Yosemite Lakes Community Church) on fire for Israel."
"In Israel, you feel the presence of God like no other place," Downey reiterated. "Until you go there, you will never know or understand."
When all was said and done, perhaps the highest praise of all came from Fannin's 19-year-old granddaughter, Sarah Rojas, who simply said, "I want to be more like my grandma."
The SAR EL program runs $90, and each participant is responsible for air fare. Civilians are allowed to serve in the Israeli Army for a two-or-three week stint. The U.S. liaison for SAR EL is Volunteers for Israel.