Volunteers for Israel reaching out to college-age adults

Hoisting 40-pound shells into artillery tanks in the middle of the desert might not be everyone's idea of the perfect summer vacation, but for Jarad Bernstein of Danville it was a great transition from high school to college.

Shortly after graduation from Monte Vista High School last spring, Bernstein headed off to Israel with the Volunteers For Israel program to spend three weeks on a military base near the Egyptian border. He worked alongside Israeli soldiers and reservists, wore an army uniform, slept in a military barracks and ate the same food as his Israeli counterparts.

"It was definitely being in Israel on more than a tourist basis," said Bernstein, who is now in his first year at U.C. Santa Barbara.

This beyond-the-typical-tourist experience is one that VFI hopes to offer to more young Bay Area Jews like Jarad. The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay recently awarded the local VFI chapter a grant to recruit more college-age students for its programs. More typically, volunteers have been older adults.

Rob Ruby, chair of the East Bay federation's planning committee, applauds the "people-to-people connections" of VFI. He was also co-chair of the committee that approved the $3,000 grant for Project Inspire, the program to recruit young adults.

"We feel Project Inspire addresses a key demographic because college-aged people are our future," Ruby said.

The VFI program allows volunteers to work alongside army personnel at Israel Defense Force bases and live under the same conditions as the Israeli soldier. The genesis of the program goes back to the 1982 conflict in Lebanon. With all Israel's reservists called up, the settlements in the Golan Heights risked losing their entire crops due to the labor shortage.

Dr. Aharon Davidi, former head of the IDF Parachute Corps, sent a recruitment team to the United States. Within weeks, 650 volunteers arrived in Israel to work the untended fields and orchards.

The enthusiasm of those first volunteers led to the 1983 founding of Sar-El: The National Project for Volunteers for Israel. Sar-El is the Hebrew acronym for Sherut Le-Israel, which means "Service for Israel."

The goals of the organization are to foster strong relationships between Israeli and diaspora Jews and to encourage aliyah among young Jews. The program also helps Israel's military budget by saving an average of $70 a day for each volunteer.

Since the program's inception, more than 45,000 volunteers from 20 countries have given their time to Israel's military. VFI is open to those 18 and over, but the program has attracted mostly older volunteers in the Bay Area. Sam Borcover, the regional director and president of the local chapter, hopes Project Inspire will generate the same kind of enthusiasm in the college crowd that has prompted retirees to repeat their volunteer service.

Borcover believes the program fosters a stronger Jewish identity for young people and hopes to attract participants through ads in college newspapers and presentations at Hillels.

"This is a unique opportunity for students to place themselves outside their ordinary experiences and expand their perspectives," he said.

Bernstein, who had visited Israel with a teen tour in 1997, agrees.

"With VFI, I was out there in a situation that I'd never thought I'd be in, working with tanks and helping out the Israeli army. If I was Israeli this is what I'd be doing, working in the same conditions, with the same food, and the same way of filling up extra time. It's impossible to do this program without changing your impression of Israel."

The length of duty includes lectures, guided tours, home stays and travel opportunities. Bernstein appreciated his visits to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the grave of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. But his favorite memories are of "the bonding and hanging out in the middle of the desert" with the Israelis and other program participants.

"I met Jews from Spain, Norway, Russia and South Africa. It was incredible to interact with all these people who I share a common heritage with."