By Paul Goldfinger.
When a Jewish colleague asked Ocean Grover Clark Cate, age 58, to join him on an adventure to Israel, Clark said “Why not?” Clark was in the mood for a unique travel opportunity, especially with a good friend. At first, that was all there was to it. Clark is not Jewish, nor is he a Zionist, a historian, or someone seeking his religious roots. But by the time the journey was over, he found surprises that he never anticipated.
It turned out that Clark was participating in an organized program called “Volunteers for Israel.” People come from all over the world to temporarily join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). According to Clark, “Every year volunteers serve for one to three weeks with the IDF. Their job is neither paid nor armed and is mainly in the logistical, maintenance, catering, supply and medical services.” Since Clark’s status was that of a volunteer, he was not officially sworn in, and thus there is no violation of American law.
The two week trip occurred in February 2012. Clark and his friend Steve Litwak were assigned to an army base east of Jerusalem and given a uniform with volunteer epaulets, dog tags, a bunk bed in a barracks, use of a communal bathroom, and a place at the mess hall table with the Israeli soldiers. Female volunteers got to stay with the women soldiers. They put in a full day’s work helping in a unit that was processing and rebuilding motors for tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles. Clark described his job as “grunt work.” The menu in the mess hall consisted of a lot of “cucumbers, tomatoes, and chick peas.” But once a day they had some meat.
Clark and Steve were among the 30,000 Americans who have joined the program since its inception in 1982, when volunteers were requested to help with the harvest, when reservists were called up for the first war with Lebanon. Clark’s group consisted of twenty people, of which 40% were non-Jews. Seven in his group were from central Jersey, and 4 were Israelis who just wanted to help.
Throughout his trip he was impressed by the “spirit of volunteerism and patriotism” that he witnessed as he travelled all over the country. He got to meet young soldiers, ages 18-21, but he was surprised to find that most of them were from other places such as England, France, and the US. They were volunteers who would serve 2-3 year tours of duty or they were new Israelis who had “made aliyah,” moving permanently to Israel and promptly joining the IDF. In the evenings Clark and Steve attended educational lectures by IDF officers such as the one that explained why Israel was willing to release 1,000 prisoners to get one captured soldier returned to them. Another program discussed the proposed fence at the border with Egypt.
Clark and Steve spent one week at the army base and then they joined some members of their group on a whirlwind tour of the country. (It’s Wednesday; it must be Haifa) Clark took a side trip to Bethlehem where he encountered some nervousness because of the West Bank location.
When Clark, the former owner of the Manchester Inn, returned to Ocean Grove, he felt a strong renewed sense of the importance of volunteerism in a town such as ours. It turns out that Clark, who lives with his family on Pilgrim Pathway, is a huge cheerleader for the Grove. He loves living here and being part of its uniqueness, and his trip to Israel just strengthened his resolve to do even more for OG. He already is a member of the Stokes Fire Department, the Citizen Patrol and the Neptune water rescue team. Since he is back, he has recruited five new OGCP volunteers.