Home inSight Volunteering in Israel: Part III

Volunteering in Israel: Part III

Jewish Policy Center

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of our on-the-ground volunteer reporting from Israel. There will be more – and we’ve got a new link for contributions to organizations in Israel directly helping the military and civilian populations. Get your credit cards out. You’ve been asking what you can do from home – please do this: https://hatzolair.org/campaign/funds-for-hatzolah-air-israel-operations. . There are a lot of good organizations, but this is as direct a donor-to-service link as you will find. In addition, a generous JPC member will be matching contributions between $180-$20,000. Make it rain, people.

Thursday, November 9

Again, a long productive day that went not as planned.

We started at Just One Chesed in Efrat, which receives donations of all kinds of products and equipment for distribution to the army, local rapid intervention teams, and citizens. They have been at it for a long time, and you can look on their website for what they need in each category. They have an Amazon portal that will send stuff directly to their facility in NY for packing and shipment to Israel.

While I was there, the head of an Israeli search organization came in. The org is Y’chdei

Y’chedat Ha’Kalbanim L’yisrael, or Israel Dog Unit (IDU), a nonprofit that uses dogs to assist the police and military to search for people that have gone missing. Normally, they would help find a kid who got lost or someone with dementia. Now they are spending a lot of resources searching for missing people in the south near Gaza – victims, soldiers, and Hamas. (If you want to know what Israeli hospitals do with human placentas, they use them to train dogs to search for human remains, usually after terrorist attacks.)

Mike, head of IDU needs people desperately to help care for the dogs and to participate in regular search operations while so many of his resources are down south. So, Eli traded me to IDU for a draft choice and other future consideration. I’ve ordered a t-shirt with my new motto: “They also serve who scoop the poop.”

Anyway, it’s just possible that Eli is getting sick of me and wants his life back.

Eli and I then drove to pick up medical supplies that a company here in Israel donated. Eli had called WaisMeds to see if Hatzolah Air could buy $2000 of tourniquets. The head of the company wouldn’t take any money and donated about $50,000 worth of equipment that Eli will distribute over the next few days.

We then travelled back to the Lebanon border to see the head of Ad Kan, who was also Eli’s former army commander. This was the second time since I’ve been here that I’ve been scared – not because of anything that happened, but because Roni scared the crap out of me, and all the artillery was far away and outgoing. More on my meeting when I get home.

It happened that the commander’s communications officer, David, saw that I had a tactical helmet. David is responsible for the commander’s safety in the field, and he mentioned that the commander didn’t have a tactical helmet like mine. I gave him mine, figuring I wouldn’t need it or could get another one. He came back a few minutes later and handed me an old Israeli army helmet from the 1990s that had been David’s brother’s. I didn’t want to take it, but Eli told me I had to. I told David that I would hold this for him, and after the war, when he is in the US or I am in Israel, we will trade back.

I met wonderful people, as I have everywhere. But this was a special evening. As I write this, Eli and are driving back to central Israel to the IDU base where I’ll spend at least a few days.

One word about soldier pay; there hasn’t been any. Israelis get paid once a month and so pay won’t come until mid-November. Also, because the call up was so sudden it’s not clear that the government is organized for payroll yet. And remember that the call up was oversubscribed so there are people I’ve talked to who are with units, but they don’t know if the government knows they’re there. The upshot though is that this, too, has put a major strain on the economy and the banks have extended a lot of credit terms.

Still, and let me emphasize this, morale is high. More soon.

Monday, November 13

When I left off last Thursday night, Eli and I were driving to the base of IDU, a private organization that has search and rescue dogs, including dogs that are trained to find cadavers and other human parts.

We arrived a little after midnight. We were met by Juda, a 17-year old training to take his exam to be in one if Israel’s elite army units, and David, a young Swat medic volunteering from Providence, RI. They showed me to my quarters. How do I describe them? “Shipping container chic.” The modified shipping container part is real, the chic isn’t. Let’s just say, whenever someone complains about a hotel room and I say, “I’ve slept in worse,” it will be without fear of contradiction. Eli did warn me it won’t be the Hilton on a Hilltop. I later moved to the dorm, which had more of an Animal House approach to décor and maintenance. But it was a huge step up.

The base currently has about 20 dogs. There are attack dogs (used for perimeter security in towns and villages), search and rescue dogs (similar to what you see on a police procedural), and cadaver dogs (no explanation required). These are not “good doggies,” and it would probably be a felony to walk them in Arlington, VA. That is not a criticism of Arlington, but an example of sound government.

The dogs actually have nice accommodations. Each has a cage about the size of my shipping container. The cages are very clean, and each has a pail of water. The dogs wake up at about 5:30 a.m. and the first thing they do is have a hugely loud argument. At first, I thought they were arguing with each other. Then I realized what was happening – a rooster down the road would crow and the dogs would respond. When the dogs calmed down, the rooster would crow again and the dogs would start. I never got a chance to kill that rooster, but it was on the agenda.

I helped walk and feed the dogs Friday morning. Mike had a specific request from the army to search a particular area that day. I went with Moshe, Juda, and Loki (the dog). Each dog has a specific handler, so the dog responds only to that person’s commands (and Mike’s). Moshe is Loki’s handler. Someone else also goes on every job, usually a handler trainee or a volunteer. Juda is a handler trainee, and I was extra cargo.

We went down to a field near the Gaza border, about 90 minutes from our camp. You’ve probably heard of the festival that was targeted in the October 7 attacks. This field was near the site of a smaller gathering. There are burnt out cars and motorcycles on the road next to the field, and the question is whether anyone ran from the party or the cars into one of the fields on either side of the road.

We met up with the army unit that was conducting the search. The arrangement was four soldiers on point, followed by Loki with Moshe and Juda, and then the soldiers lined up along the width of the field. I got into that line. The idea was to look for anything that might have belonged to a person and that might be helpful for identification. Empty bottles were not useful, but bones, teeth, blood, clothing were. If someone found something interesting, they yelled out and the line stopped. There were two other soldiers who were forensic specialists who decided whether to take the item, and if so, they bagged it. They got about 3 or 4 items during the day, mostly from the other side of the line so I have no idea what they were. On my side, we found a torn-up shirt, which probably had not been there for months or years but might have been there a few weeks. The forensic guys took it and marked the location.

I found what looked like an animal bone, but I asked about it. The forensic guy agreed it was an animal and told me that a bone from October 7 would still be “moist.” I think he meant that it wouldn’t be so dry and brittle. Still, I thought about a member of my family – I don’t remember who – who hates the word “moist.” Now I’m in that camp.

We spent about 4 hours in the field. When we got back to the cars, there were civilians waiting with sandwiches and ice cream. This wasn’t arranged, it’s just how things work around Israel now, civilians feed soldiers. Since Moshe, Juda, and I were wearing army pants and green t-shirts that are the same color the army uses, we got food too.

Back at camp, we cleaned up, had a short Sabbath service, and then sat down to a dinner donated by some people who brought food for the local garrison and had extra. Lots of extra. This was the kind of meal where you thought you were done after the first course and three more courses came. I did the dishes and went to bed in my new dorm room.

Saturday was quiet and there were no assignments (the group will go out on Sabbath if specifically requested).

On Saturday afternoon, the dogs have playtime, which is really training time with time with their handlers. The dogs really put on a show. I helped Shlomo, a long-term volunteer, who handles base-camp operations, organize supplies. For example, there’s lots of medical equipment at the camp for humans and dogs, but that hadn’t been sorted in a while.

Saturday night, dinner was catch-as-catch can. I ate with Yoni, who seems to be doing better. He was trying to reach El Al to get points for his trip here but wasn’t having any luck. Still, he had a pretty good humor about it.

Also Saturday night, Mike set up an experiment to see whether the regular sniff dogs would be able to identify human remains. He placed human placenta at different places around the camp, and we took the dogs out one-by-one to see they would find and mark where Mike had put the tissue, which he had buried under rocks. Most of the dogs did very well. I went to bed about midnight. (A word on human placenta: Mike told me he received his dog-training expertise in Europe, where they use human placenta to train cadaver dogs. Other places, including Israel and the U.S., use animal meat, but that smells different, and the dogs aren’t as good. Now you know.)

In the middle of the night, I got Arafat’s revenge. Very bad. I spent all of Sunday in bed, and since I was not going to be useful in camp, and someone else was sleeping in the shipping container, I decided to leave and at least free up a bed. My fever broke Sunday night, and Eli came to camp and brought be back to Jerusalem this morning. He had spent his days passing around the medical supplies that WaisMeds had donated last week. He was up north on Sunday, so he slept over at one of the bases and then came to pick me up early.

I asked Eli about his brother-in-law, Moshe. You may remember that we drove him back to his base when he was supposed to be on leave. Eli heard from Moshe the day after he (Moshe) arrived in Gaza, with a request for more armor plates for vests. Eli is still trying to find the funds, which I didn’t know until later – so he’s going to use my credit card. Anyhow, no word from Moshe since, but Eli and I agreed that no news is good news. But another rapid-response medic unit had three casualties over the weekend; all killed.

Every civilian I’ve spoken to has either been to a funeral within the last 24 hours or is going to a funeral later that day. Still, everyone is going about their business, and doing what needs doing. Eli was delighted this morning when we were held up in Jerusalem traffic – he said this is the first time there’s been this much traffic in Jerusalem since October 7th. Children were also walking back to school.

That’s about all for now.