Brendan Wolfe recently returned to Prince Rupert after spending a few weeks in the Middle East volunteering for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“It was a great experience seeing how Israelis live,” he said.
Wolfe discovered Sar-El, a national volunteer organization established in 1983, while surfing the internet.
“I’ve always been interested in visiting Israel. It’s the only country in the Middle East you can go to and feel safe,” Wolfe told the Prince Rupert Northern View in an exclusive interview.
Wolfe arrived in Israel on Oct. 12 to start his volunteering trip with Sar-El. During his time overseas, he offered his services alongside other Canadians as well as individuals from the United States, England, Scotland, Finland, South America, Holland and various other countries all over the globe.
Wolfe volunteered in two IDF warehouses on bases that cannot be named for security reasons. While working on these bases, Wolfe would prepare equipment for soldiers so if a war was to break out with Lebanon, soldiers would have quick access to the equipment they need. Wolfe also helped clean guns for Israeli soldiers.
Holding a weapon wasn’t anything new for Wolfe, as he had been part of the Canadian military for three years in Manitoba prior to signing up for Sar-El. However, Wolfe did admit it was strange seeing so many people openly possessing weapons.
“You would see Rabbis walking around with machine guns, and women in bikinis on the beach with guns,” he said.
Although for the most part Wolfe felt safe, he did mention one incident where he felt uneasy knowing terrorists were near by.
While Wolfe was working in a base close to the Lebanon border he was informed Hezbollah members could be seen in the distance with binoculars.
“They apparently have thousands of rockets aimed at Israel. Everyday we would be working… We asked soldiers if they were watching us and they told us yes, they’re watching you right now,” Wolfe said.
“It was strange knowing a terrorist organization was right there… And at any given time they could shoot a rocket at us.”
Despite feeling uneasy on some occasions, Wolfe said he got a feeling of accomplishment knowing he was helping the IDF.
“I’ve never seen so many people be happy to see me help out,” he said.
Aside from working, in the evenings during the week volunteers would attend lectures on Jewish and Israeli topics such as the Hebrew language and learning about the Israeli culture and geography.
In Israel the weekend starts on either Thursday or Friday at noon to accommodate Jewish Sabbath, with the work week commencing on Sunday. On weekends Wolfe and other Sar-El volunteers would have time to check out areas of Israel.
On Wolfe’s first weekend off, he travelled to Golan Heights which is situated in northern Israel. Wolfe and fellow volunteers went to see the Nimrod’s Fortress, a huge castle built in the 1200s. While in Golan Heights, Wolfe also walked the road leading up Mount Hermon in hopes of catching a glimpse of Syria, however was told to turn around once he was nearing the top because of the civil war happening on the other side of the mountain.
Wolfe also visited Jerusalem, where he saw the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard, one of the most sacred sites for Jewish people aside from the temple itself. While in Jerusalem Wolfe also went into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and touched the Stone of Anointing, which in traditions is said to be where Jesus was prepared for burial.
Another biblical site Wolfe visited was the cave Adullam located near Adullam, which in the Old Testament of the Bible is where King David hid from King Saul.
Wolfe also took some time to swim in well known bodies of water near Israel. While visiting Ein Gedi, Wolfe decided to take a swim in the Dead Sea, a lake known for it’s high salt content.
“I was just floating on the water. It was the weirdest feeling… It’s almost like you’re on top of the water,” he said.
Wolfe also went swimming in the Mediterranean Sea while visiting Tel Aviv, which was mild compared to his other experience while in Israel’s second most populated city.
Before heading to Tel Aviv, Wolfe was told not to worry about rocket attacks because any attacks were usually aimed at the southern part of Israel. However, while Wolfe was in Tel Aviv it was targeted for the first time since the Gulf War in 1991.
Wolfe and other Sar-El volunteers were hanging out in the hostel they were staying at when they heard an air raid siren go off.
“I was in shock because we weren’t expecting it… A rocket hadn’t reached Tel Aviv in 21 years and I happened to be there,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe and the others quickly ran into a room downstairs of the hostel and laid on their stomachs with their hands behind their heads hoping a rocket wouldn’t hit the building.
“When the air raid siren stopped everything was silent. We went outside and saw that life went back to normal. People were out walking their dogs, jogging and everything was open again like nothing happened,” he said.
That wasn’t Wolfe’s last rocket scare while in Tel Aviv. On the second day he was there, he had stopped in a restaurant to grab a beer when the air raid siren went off once again. The server muttered a swear word about terrorists under her breath and Wolfe quickly took a drink of his beer before running next door to the hostel to hide in the shelter once again. However, this time Wolfe and another man got locked out of the hostel. Wolfe found himself taking cover under a doorway, while overhead he could hear sounds of rockets in the sky, and sounds of the Israeli anti-missile defence system Iron Dome intercepting the rockets before they could hit the ground.
“We were on the north side of the building so we weren’t in direct contact [with where the rockets would’ve hit]… But we were the only people on the street,” Wolfe said.
Other locations Wolfe visited included Israel’s third largest city, Haifa.
Despite a couple of scary encounters, Wolfe said he felt safe while he was in the Middle East.
“I went over there thinking it was going to be crazy, but I actually felt more safe walking around at night there than I do in Canada,” he said
Wolfe said he would love to go back to Israel for a visit one day.