As violence worsens, local volunteers head to Israel for scutwork

For the better part of a month, the Concord tae kwon do instructor and office manager went from throwing punches and crunching numbers to packing boxes in the Volunteers for Israel program. He put together roughly 1,500 packs of candies, cookies and snacks, distributing them to wounded soldiers in several hospitals.

While ongoing violence has decimated the Israeli tourism industry and eroded the nation's economy, in recent months an increasing number of Israel supporters worldwide are paying their own way to the Jewish state to volunteer. Once in Israel, they work on military bases or hospitals, peeling potatoes, painting warehouses or, like Marcus, loading up pallets of motor oil.

"I feel this is something you have to do," Marcus. said. "Israel is our homeland. It's our only sanctuary. It's the only safe haven we have. That's why I volunteered. This is the only way I could help them out, and right now Israel needs our help."

Sam Borcover, the Volunteers for Israel program's regional president since 1985, said 15 Bay Area residents headed to Israel between late April and mid-May — at least three times as many volunteers as normal and easily the heaviest surge since the Scud missile attacks of the Gulf War.

While unable to provide specific numbers, VFI's New York office claimed it has sent more volunteers to Israel in the past three months than it did in all of 2001. VFI officials also said numbers are up among British and French volunteers.

And, in addition to being more numerous, today's volunteers are often in the workforce. Doctors, dentists, teachers, executives, librarians, teachers and nurses have all taken breaks from their day jobs to engage in what Borcover euphemistically calls "scutwork" on Israeli bases.

While traditionally volunteers were retirees with the time and "extra couple of bucks" to pay their way to Israel, according to Borcover, many now are in their 40s or 50s.

Emanuel Appel of San Francisco fits that mold. The 58-year-old said anti-Israel activity at U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State, coupled with what he perceives as a pro-Palestinian slant in local media outlets, convinced him to pull over from his job as a tour bus driver for a month of scutwork.

"When I told some of my friends and acquaintances, they thought I was out of my mind; I was going on a suicide mission," said Appel, a Bay Area resident since 1968.

Appel found himself rooming with French, Czech, Canadian and South African Jews who cleaned machine guns, worked in commissaries, maintained tanks or laundered and repaired parachutes.

"The most worthwhile thing I did was help the country defend itself: folding parachutes, cleaning the guns, cleaning the tank parts of rust and painting them. We helped to keep the machinery of defense going. I think that was the most worthwhile."

Appel wasn't the only Bay Area participant whose desire to work on an Israeli military base was met with disbelief from friends and family.

Debora Estreicher, a San Jose librarian, had planned for her brother to drive her to the airport, until he "said he would drug me and somehow make me miss my plane. So I circumvented him and had the shuttle pick me up."

Estreicher was out of harm's way in Israel. Volunteers are housed on military bases "deep in the interior," according to Borcover, and are not placed in dangerous locations. However, while traveling on his own, Marcus left a Tel Aviv cafe moments before it exploded, and concedes that if he hadn't needed to make a phone call elsewhere, he might have been killed in the blast.

"If I had stayed five more minutes…," Marcus said, reflecting on his own mortality. "But I put myself at risk. The army didn't do it and the volunteer program didn't do it. The housing is dorm-style, like a combination of summer camp and college life, and it's hard. It's not for everyone. But at no time does the volunteer program put you at risk."

Those dorm-like conditions seem to have made more of an impression on San Francisco's Kathy Hallgren than any threats of terrorism.

"It took me awhile to decide if this is exactly what I want to do. It's a rough two weeks: You sleep on a mattress that's an inch thick, get up early, eat lousy food and share a room with seven people you don't know. But [Israelis] are doing it every day, so I can handle it," said the 43-year-old freelance writer, who leaves this weekend for her first VFI "tour" of Israel.

"Going over as a volunteer, the idea is to take somebody's place so [military personnel] can do something more important or go home and be with their families. If I wasn't doing it, some soldier would have to do it."

While VFI participants are, not surprisingly, mostly Jewish, they are not exclusively so. Appel and Marcus both toiled alongside a number of non-Jews from around the globe.

"They want to do something for Israel. It's that simple," said Borcover of the program's non-Jewish attendees. In the last few weeks, Borcover has received calls from several Bay Area Italian-Americans who are "perturbed by what they've seen and read. They're ticked off at what's going on and want to do something."

Marcus showed one non-Jewish comrade around Jerusalem. A committed Zionist, the man flew his mother into Israel to join him, and insisted on donating blood.

Estreicher worked with a pair of non-Jewish Finns, who spoke just enough English to inform her that the Finnish foreign minister's comments about Israel had enraged them enough to make the trip.

"The soldiers appreciated us being there," said Estreicher, 45, who helped sanitize and vacuum-seal medical kits. "It's very important they see people on the outside are supportive and caring enough to be there during this difficult period.

"I don't think I'm a hero for going there. But they're heroes for living there."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.