Lending a helping hand


Photos by Robert Chase

Detroiters rally to cause as ‘Volunteers for Israel’

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A month before the renewal of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman was hard at work at an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) base, spending his “vacation” in volunteer service for the Jewish homeland.

It was the second such assignment for the Detroit jurist, who answered his first call to duty in October of 2011 as part of a delegation involved in the “Volunteers for Israel” program.

His decision to re-enlist for the 2012 program, which began October 14 and lasted the better part of a week, was based in large measure on his desire to demonstrate a willingness to “lend a helping hand” and “to be of continued service and support” to Israel.

Judge Friedman, appointed to the federal bench in June 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan, was joined for the week’s assignment by four other Israeli supporters from Metro Detroit, in addition to a friend from South Carolina, who interestingly enough became part of the “Detroit Group.” Aside from Judge Friedman, the group included Jim Andreski, chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service in Detroit, and his wife, Denise, an educational consultant from Grosse Pointe; attorney Richard Monash of Orchard Lake; Dr. Ronald Michaelson, an endodontist from West Bloomfield; and Frank Steinkruger, a construction engineer from South Carolina.

“We met at 8 a.m. (on October 14) in the Tel Aviv Airport to receive our assignment and commence our volunteer service of civilian work at an Israeli Defense Forces base,” Friedman said. “There were more than 150 volunteers awaiting their assignments, both Jewish and Christian, from countries around the world.”

The Volunteers for Israel program arose from another Middle East conflict, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to do battle with the PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organization). The uprising in the summer of 1982 came at a time when the first crops of the season were ripening throughout the Jezreel Valley and the harvest was in danger as reservists were being called up to defend Israel’s northern flank.

In response to the challenge, Israel sent emissaries to the U.S. to enlist volunteers to help with the harvest, an effort that produced an “immediate and overwhelming response,” according to VFI officials.

“The volunteer experiment proved so successful that it was continued and expanded,” VFI officials indicated. “Nearly 140,000 people from around the world have taken part in the program administered in Israel by Sar-El, an organization whose acronym means ‘Service for Israel.’”

The Detroit Group was assigned to Bach Golani, the principal training base for the renowned Golani infantry brigade, one of the most highly decorated units in the Israeli military. The heavily fortified base is located an hour-and-a-half north of Tel Aviv, and is “out in the middle of nowhere,” according to Friedman. Joining the Detroit Group were eight other volunteers, including five from Florida, one from Israel, one from the United Kingdom, and another from Michigan. They were led by two female soldiers, both of whom were trained to assist and provide guidance for the volunteers.

“As we arrived on the recently renovated base, we immediately noticed the cadence of focused discipline and training exhibited by the recruits of this elite unit,” Friedman related, noting that group members were issued uniforms and assigned to separate barracks for men and women.

“Behind us were the luxuries of private showers, sinks, and beds,” Friedman noted. “After all, this is the army.”

And, not surprisingly, the “days went fast,” Friedman indicated.

“We rose around 6 a.m., although some got up much earlier to exercise, pray, or drink coffee, a necessary commodity for Americans,” he said. “The Magen David, the emblem of the Israeli national flag, could be observed in the sky at the 7:28 a.m. formation, followed by a spartan but tasty breakfast. Work commenced soon thereafter at 8:30. Typically, we broke for lunch from 12-1 p.m. and we were back to work until 4:30.”

Half of the volunteers worked in the base armory, “cleaning and repairing equipment, while the other half served in a warehouse setting, checking and packing tents, gas masks, tent stakes, clothing, ponchos, and other supplies,” according to Friedman, who has made five trips to Israel since graduating from high school.

“The volunteers performed jobs and accomplished tasks that would otherwise have been done by soldiers or Israeli civilians,” Friedman explained. “We quickly came to appreciate the need for our efforts and the contribution we made to the country and its defense. It was most fulfilling.”

Andreski, who has spent 26 years with the U.S. Marshals Service after beginning his career as a police officer, offered a concurring opinion, calling the volunteer service a “deeply rewarding experience” for him and his wife.

“It gave all of us a deeper appreciation for the work of the Israeli military and their commitment to provide for the country’s security in a hostile region,” said Andreski, who had encouraged his Jewish wife to take part in the program. “All of us who worked there developed a special bond that I’m sure will be long lasting.”

Andreski, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and his wife were married 10 years ago in a ceremony performed by none other than Judge Friedman. The glow of that special day for the Andreskis has now taken on even more meaning after the experience they shared in Israel with Judge Friedman.

“Who knew back then, on our wedding day, that we would ever be involved in something like this with Judge Friedman,” Andreski asked rhetorically. “Working together on that base was something that we will long remember.”

For Friedman, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan from 2004-09, the work paid special dividends.

“Although we worked hard and fast, we maintained a sense of humor, learned new skills, and had fun — even losing a few pounds,” he said. “The soldiers were approachable, appreciative of our services, friendly, talkative, and informative. They were young, 18 to 19 years old, but were committed to being the best and trained vigorously with total dedication.”
In the evening hours, “our Madrichim had programs planned for us,” Friedman said.

“We learned about the IDF, its uniforms, ranks, and insignias,” said Friedman, who along with his wife, Rozanne, a psychologist, has two children and four grandchildren. “We heard from a Golani platoon leader, who answered our questions about his duties as well as life as a contemporary Israeli youth. Our group bonded with the land, the troops, and each other.

“After our five days on the base,” he added, “we left with a sense of accomplishment, respect for the soldiers and the army in which they serve, and a prayer in our hearts for their safety and well-being.”