When supporting Israel became more than writing cheques

  • Werner
For retired American lawyer Mark Werner, Israel is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he grew up with a strong appreciation for the Jewish state, doing whatever he could to support it from a distance.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Apr 30, 2020

With time, however, he wanted to do more than write cheques. In 2002, Werner donned army fatigues and became a volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), supporting its soldiers in a non-combatant role.

Since then, he has volunteered on Israeli military bases annually for the past 18 years and, although 67, he has no plans to stop.

“I need to support the state of Israel,” Werner told the SA Jewish Report this week. “That’s that. It’s no coincidence that no mass persecution of Jews anywhere in the world has occurred since its establishment. People don’t realise how unusual this reality is, and it’s down to one thing – the existence of Israel.”

Over the years, Werner has packed supplies, painted buildings, and prepared combat gear at bases across Israel. He has captured his 14 years of volunteer work in an upcoming book titled, A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-el Volunteer.

This is the second book he has penned based on his experiences on military bases working through Sar-el, an organisation that co-ordinates volunteers wanting to support Israeli soldiers.

Like his previous book, Army Fatigues, Werner’s upcoming book draws on the journals he keeps each time he volunteers. He illustrates the daily routine of volunteers from America, Australia, South Africa, and others who spend three weeks on a military base supporting soldiers in different ways. Their duties are manifold, but each is carried out with passion.

“I enjoy every moment,” Werner says. “The physical nature of the work, wearing the uniform, eating with soldiers in the mess hall, it’s all an experience.

“This is noble work, no one pays you to do it. You pay to go, and there’s no glory in any of it because the work is often dirty and demanding. People do it because they believe in the cause.”

A resident of North Carolina in the United States, Werner’s commitment to Israel goes back to his childhood. “I was raised in Vineland, the closest thing to a moshav (co-operative agricultural community) anywhere in North America,” he says.

“Everyone there was Jewish, and many of them were Holocaust survivors. We all had a strong sense of attachment towards Israel. It was part of my upbringing.”

In spite of his youthful passion for Israel, Werner’s first trip to Israel occurred only in 1996, when he embarked on a Jewish Federation mission at the age of 43. He continued to support Israel philanthropically, but determined to be more hands-on, and decided to return as a Sar-el volunteer in 2002 in the wake of the Second Intifada.

“My friends warned me to be vigilant, but I felt safe from the moment I arrived. Today, I feel safer walking the streets of Israel than those of major cities in the US. You feel at home there, and being there feels natural to me. I’ve yet to feel unsafe in Israel.”

Three subsequent volunteer missions followed, culminating in the publication of his first book, which Werner hoped would inspire more volunteers. When Army Fatigues proved successful, Werner decided to publish again, ever eager to strike a resonant chord with supporters of Israel and inspire others to become more involved in supporting the country.

Those who step in to help are marked by their enthusiasm and commitment, Werner says. Coming from across the globe, volunteers are grouped together according to language, and devoted to certain tasks that help the base operate smoothly. They share a common goal: to be as helpful as possible.

“Work that is supposed to take a day is often finished within hours,” says Werner. “That’s the power of a volunteer’s motivation. I was once on a base where we worked so fast, we cleared the schedules of soldiers, cancelled additional shifts, and enabled them to go home early because they weren’t needed on base.

“It’s important work,” he says. “The soldiers see our commitment, and believe that the government pays us to volunteer.

“When you volunteer, you free up a soldier to do so much more. In fact, officers have found that volunteers are so careful, they do a better a job than soldiers. When we do it, we do it right.”

Beyond the direct benefits for Israel, Werner has found another level of significance to the volunteer service: boosting the morale of soldiers.

“Most Israeli soldiers feel that the world is against them. They see what is said in foreign media, and believe they have no support. When they see foreigners come in to help them, they’re stunned and their spirits are lifted.

“When I arrived at a paratrooper base in 2006, I had lunch with troops who had just returned from Lebanon. They were exhausted, down, and disheartened. When they found out who I was and what I was doing there, they lit up. Their sergeant explained to me that to them, my visit was sweeter than the air they were breathing. This is the impact a volunteer can have.”

Werner hopes his book will help people understand the impact volunteers have, and would like more English-speakers to take up the opportunity, Jewish or not.

“Volunteering is an opportunity for people who are pro-Israel to do something meaningful and concrete,” he says.

“It’s fine to write a cheque, but if you’re able-bodied, want to do more, and are willing to step beyond your comfort zone, this is the way to do it. It can be tough living in barracks and sweating in the heat, but when it’s done, you feel good in the knowledge that you’ve done something to support Israel.”

'A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-el Volunteer' is published by Gefen Publishing House and can be ordered from Amazon. 

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