For Sundaes owner Ken Schneider, volunteering is a calling.
“I subscribe to the philosophy of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ which is Hebrew for ‘repair the world,’” he said.
And for the past 10 years, he has been doing just that. He volunteers with a program called Sar-El – The National Project for Volunteers in Israel – and works for three weeks on a military base in Israel.
Schneider grew up in Randolph, Mass., with his parents, brother, and two sisters.
“It was a great place to grow up. I drove my first ice cream truck for Ding-A-Ling ice cream,” he said.
In 1975, Schneider was offered the opportunity to manage in Rhode Island. His first response was, “Where’s Rhode Island?”
He stayed with the Ding-A-Ling company for 17 years. He purchased the Sundaes in Seekonk in 1986, and the Cranston store in 1988. The Johnston store opened in 2003.
“I am lucky and fortunate to work in the ice cream business. It allows me to pursue what is truly important to me,” he said. The flexibility of not being as busy in the off-season has helped him achieve his volunteering goals.
Before volunteering with Sar-El, Schneider had been to Israel 10 times.
“I knew I wanted to go back, but not in the traditional tourist way,” he said. “So what I do is labor on an Israeli army base. We are not soldiers – we do not do any work the soldiers would do. We are there as support, extra hands, and to be as helpful as we can.”
The process for getting into the Sar-El program is not easy.
“The Sar-El website lays out the details in black and white. They do not sugarcoat the information,” he said.
Schneider went to Brookline for an interview. The program looks at the mental and physical capabilities of applicants, and he filled out a 12-page application.
“They make sure you are capable in all ways to perform the tasks,” he said.
According to Schneider, participants come from all over the world to be in the program.
“Everyone who comes is a supporter of Israel. They are not all Jewish, in fact almost one-third of the volunteers are not Jewish. An, they are not all Americans. There are people from France, Germany, Switzerland, South America,” he said. He added: “They have people in the program well into their 90s. There is a pretty even balance of men to women working,” he said.
Out of the 10 times he has done the trip, Schneider has been on the same military base four times. Each day the routine, is the same.
“I like the routine. I like knowing what I am doing everyday, we have the same bosses,” he said. “Up at 6:30 a.m., breakfast, flagraising, Hativka [Israel’s national anthem], work until noon, lunch, work, supper. After dinner, around 7:30 p.m., there is a special program connected to Israel. By 9 p.m., we are in bed.”
Every Thursday afternoon, a bus takes the volunteers to a station and they leave the base for the Sabbath.
“It is a great time to travel around Israel. I’ve gone to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, and even a trip to the West Bank,” he said.
The country appreciates the program and all the help and support the volunteers give.
“The soldiers think we are crazy for doing this,” he said.
This past January, Schneider was joined by his friend, Cranston resident Kevin Dwares.
“I had been to Israel eight times prior to the Sar-El,” Dwares said. “I went as a volunteer on a kibbutz and other times with family and friends. I had always been interested in volunteering in another capacity when I had heard about living and working on a military base. I contacted Ken and we talked about how the program ran, and I immediately decided to join,” he said.
Upon their arrival, Schneider and Dwares were met by the program coordinator and told what base they would be working on.
“It was called Tel Hashomer, which is a large base that handles and processes new recruits into the military and is located in Tel Aviv,” Dwares said.
The men were assigned to work in a large warehouse packing medical supplies into large backpacks, which the medics would carry. Some weighed in excess of 50 pounds.
“While the work was tiring and the days long, I knew that we were counted on to be accurate with what we packed. The people I met treated us like family,” said Dwares.
Dwares feels the experience taught him a lot about working as a team and camaraderie.
“I loved every minute of my experience and would gladly do it again in the future. It was a great time,” he said.
Schneider said it is easy in life to write a check and let other people do the work.
“We are performing an incredible mitzvah [good deed] for the state of Israel. We are doing work so the soldiers can do what they need to do. We work daily side by side with people who have the same love and respect for Israel,” he said.
Schneider encourages people to contact him directly for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sar-El’s website is sar-el.org.