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Helping Soldiers Chillax

Graham Nussbaum, Chairman of Young Israel Synagogue, North Netanya, cuts the ribbon watched by Ian Fine, Chairman of the English-speaking branch of AWIS in Israel
The soldier at a small army base tucked away in a pastoral part of Central Israel held out his hand as our bus approached the gate. Ian Fine, chairman of the English Speaking branch of AWIS, stood on the top step to assure the uniformed young man, laden with electronic equipment and walkie talkies, that our busload of aging Anglos did not constitute a security risk.
"We're from Netanya," declared Fine, in beautifully British articulated Hebrew. "We're here to donate sporting equipment and new-fangled TVs that can work in the field. We're from the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers." And then, in an only-in-Israel moment, the army corporal broke into a grin. "My father-in-law davens in your shul,"  he volunteered, beaming. A quick exchange about his lovely young wife's family ensued, the barrier to the camp rose, and we were in.
Israel is a crazy place. The head of the base joined us, looking ridiculously familiar. Was he in politics; had he been my student? Unfortunately the reason was more tragic; I recognized him from the annual memorial services for a good friend's soldier son; he had been David Solomonov's officer when David was inexplicably shot dead on a peaceful border at the end of Yom Kippur, three days before his service should have come to an end. Suddenly this random base in the middle of nowhere was full of family.
And family is how the AWIS members view "our boys" and "our girls" in Israel's armed forces. Each month a busload of olim packs into their seats for a trip to selected bases from the Golan Heights down to Eilat; Christmas, or rather Chanukah, lasts all year. The contingent always comes bearing gifts: from boxes of Bamba and Bisli to the refurbishment of clubhouses, or  equipment including sports and workout gear and electronic devices. Funds are all privately donated: around 40,000 shekels will remodel an existing building and fit it out with coffee stations and games, comfy sofas, a wide-screen TV and a fridge; books, plants, a Kiddush cup and candles add touches of home. Up to 90,000 shekels will build a new clubhouse from scratch; it can often be organized for less than half that price. Donors give whatever they like; a 500-shekel annual contribution ensures membership and eligibility to join trips (and also to win big in a raffle.) Donations also fund scholarships for soldiers for post-army studies – 20,000 shekels per student over three years – and 1,000 needy new recruits each year receive 350 shekels each in vouchers for extra socks and underwear and other necessities that their families cannot afford.

Rabbi Baruch Boudilovsky of Young Israel Shul, North Netanya

 Founded by Ben Gurion in 1942, AWIS, through supporting and assisting the soldiers, demonstrates in practical ways how grateful the nation is to the youngsters who keep us safe. "We regard the chayalim as our children and grandchildren," said one of the donors at a renovated clubhouse dedication, "and we are so grateful to you and proud of you". For some of these Netanya-based olim from England, South Africa, America, Canada and Australia, these excursions are the closest they have ever got to a shooting range, or a tent.
More like glamping than camping, an AWIS tour is a glamorous way to see how our military functions from up close. Arriving on an air-conditioned bus, the participants are greeted by the Camp Commander, and invited to sample a delicious array of dried fruits, baked goods and cut up tomatoes and cucumbers. Lunch is a full-on affair: chicken and a type of cholent and fluffy pitot and all the spreads … it's enough to make you want to join the Permanent Forces for the rest of your life. Obviously the food is all fine for even the most particular participant – according to the Resident Rabbi on the tour, Baruch Boudilovsky, keeping kosher has been easy in the army ever since Rabbi Goren (the first Head of the Military Rabbinate) decreed that only meat can be cooked in army kitchens; all dairy has to be served cold. Rabbi Boudilovsky has the pulpit at the Young Israel Shul by the sea in Netanya; although most of the congregants are no longer that young, and it's debatable whether any are Israeli. Yet when it comes to enthusiasm, energy and contributing to the community, Young Israel must be at the top of any list. Comprised mainly of retirees from Anglo countries, the congregants are so busy with shul business – meals, trips, charity work, Kiddushim, learning and davening – that there is little time for the rest: pilates, daily swims, more charity work and lectures, bridge and bowls. Certainly no spare second for growing old; these grannies and grandads get younger by the year.
Amazingly, in the midst of all this, Ian Fine and his indefatigable secretary, Rosalind Goldstein, together with their small and enthusiastic committee, managed to organize the refurbishment of twenty-eight clubhouses around the country last year. In the process they chaperoned their donors to a graduation ceremony of Air Force graduates, saw "some secret stuff" at select bases, visited the Golan, and experienced seasickness in a submarine simulator.

In another only-in-Israel moment, they were shown how Shabbat is kept while keeping the country safe: for example, if something simply has to be written down on one base it's done in ink that later disappears … magic! No desecration of the holy day of rest, and we can all rest assured that someone is looking after us. 

Inside the clubhouse in Machneh 80 Dotan, near Pardes Hanna

At the end of the tour, having anonymously dedicated a large clubhouse in honor of the Young Israel shul, and another from funds from raffle tickets and membership, stuffed with delicacies from every stop and having caught a quick mincha at an army synagogue, Rabbi Boudilovsky regaled the group with stories of his own service as a paratrooper. I was tired at the end of the day; I'm sure the others went on to brisk walks on the beach, and then to some charity movie, or fundraising dinner, or talk.
I think there are two lessons to be learned from the day: join AWIS and retire to Netanya. To join AWIS and participate in a tour please contact:
Ian Fine 054 426 7389 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Rosalind Goldstein 052 585 3926 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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