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Journey to the Promised Land

Volunteer service trip to Israel offers glimpse into war.

While many teenagers savor every moment of summer before returning to the realities of school and homework, Elena Barker, 16, spent the greater part of her vacation volunteering in Israel, where the day-to-day realities were inescapable.

On June 29th, Elena, who attends Wakefield High School, and her mother Regina Barker-Barzel arrived in Israel to begin several weeks of volunteer work with the international volunteer organization Sa-Rel. Elena’s father, Bill Barker, the Republican candidate for School Board in 2005, came across Sa-Rel while looking for service opportunities.

Sa-Rel’s appeal was that it is a family oriented group. Volunteers are sent to different missions, either to help military forces at bases or to work in hospitals. Teens, from ages 14 to 17, are also encouraged to volunteer, so long as a parent or guardian accompanies them.

THE VOLUNTEER service began officially on July 9th, so the Barker girls were “on the loose for a while,” as Regina put it. However, on the second day, Bill arrived for a week, and together, the family visited various parts of Israel.

Regina Barker-Barzel came to the United States from Israel in 1976, and for her, the trip to her homeland bore extra significance. “Personally, I wanted to find the grave of my father,” she said. “I lived in Israel, I married my husband in Israel … it was time to show my young one the country.” Regina met Bill, an Army brat, in Jerusalem.

The family visited Jerusalem, where Regina studied at the Academy of Music; they also visited the churches and Ministry, where Regina’s father is buried.

Bill Barker also planned to show his daughter sites along the border. However, the time he arranged the visit happened to be that fateful day in July when the soldiers were abducted from the Lebanese border; and the visit was canceled.

As volunteers, Elena and Regina slept in a base, organized and unloaded boxes, laminated, prepared uniforms, and cleaned warehouses. The adults, who worked separate from the teens, also prepared packages to send to soldiers and packed backpacks.

Regina, who was also a volunteer during the Yom Kippur War, did her part to boost morale. One day, in the midst of cleaning a warehouse, she gave the soldiers and other volunteers an impromptu performance. “I sang for them … gave them a little concert,” she said with a laugh.

“We supported the soldiers,” she said. “Whether they had problems with health, problems at home, psychological problems … People are people. They have the same problems as people in America.”

Breakfast was served at 7 a.m., after which the volunteers, attired in their uniforms, had to be present for raising the flag at 8:30 a.m. Following the flag raising, the volunteers were then told which soldiers they were to work with for the day, and from 9:30 until 3:30 p.m., they worked, with a break for lunch from noon until 1 p.m. Each day closed with an evening activity at 7:30 p.m., where officials would come to speak to the volunteers, explaining army procedures and protocols.

THE SERVICE left quite an impression on Elena, who is already looking forward to returning in the coming months. “Working with the soldiers was great,” she said. “I loved it there. I can’t wait to go back.”

The gentle, persevering attitude of the soldiers not only made the Barkers feel welcomed and protected, it also inspired them to appreciate life from a new perspective.

“The soldiers had no choice to join the army,” Elena said. “You have to once you turn 18, but they never complained.”

Through her interaction with the soldiers, Regina too was struck by their solicitous behavior toward the volunteers. “We were taken care of so beautifully,” she said. “I can’t get over it — especially in such difficult times.”

The fighter planes were constantly taking off, guards were well-within sight among civilians, and the threat of bombings was always a possibility, yet Regina was able to find instances in which the power of life outweighed the specter of death.

“Outside the base … there were beautiful singing birds … the music of life … in the meantime you can hear warplanes lifting off … life and death hand in hand, yet life is winning,” she said. “At night … the light of the stars was matching the light from the planes … The overwhelming power of life was a boost of internal strength.”

Though the soldiers did well to keep the mood carefree inside the barracks, Elena and Regina, along with the other volunteers, could not help but be acutely aware of the increasingly violent situation outside the base’s walls.

She went on to relate how one of the soldier girls she worked with came in crying because one of the soldiers who were captured was her friend’s neighbor. “Our best man at the wedding’s son was wounded … you feel so much for them. It’s a small country, you know. From our base, three soldiers were killed … you feel your heart bleeding,” said Regina.

SHORTLY AFTER the volunteer program ended, Elena herself had a stark experience that served as a reminder for how dangerous the area could be, no matter how hard the people tried to go about their daily lives.

“I was going to go to a club with some soldier friends. My dad called to say they thought suicide bombers were hiding in Tel Aviv … My plans fell through, and we didn’t end up going to the club. They caught the suicide bombers close to the American Embassy … they were going to blow up the club,” she said.

Despite such heart-pounding events and the ever-present risk of violence erupting without warning, the Barkers will forever be enraptured by the beauty of Israel, and now, more than ever, they feel compelled to offer their support.

Elena plans to visit in December, then return once more to volunteer next summer. “I wanted to help the soldiers and see Israel,” she explained. “You hear everything on TV, but you can’t really experience it until you’re there.”

Regina echoes her daughter’s promise to return. “I’m planning to go back as soon as possible,” she said. “I was absent too long. Right now, Israel needs us.”