Joshua Sweet Talks About His Volunteer Service In Israel

Joshua Sweet, who recently returned from volunteering in Israel, has a long history of commitment to cultural heritage. “I taught Hebrew School for 7 years in Arizona, California, North Carolina, and Minnesota,” Sweet said. His summers, however, were spent with young campers at Jewish summer camps, including Camp Sabra in Missouri and Camp Young Judaea. 

Away from the chalkboards and campfires, Sweet’s love for the outdoors has carved out a unique path in his professional life. Now making his home in Minnesota with his wife, Jillian, works within the regional park system in the greater Twin Cities area. 

In the past several months, however, Sweet felt a strong pull to lend a hand in Israel: “I wanted to do something useful,” he said. He was led to Sar-El, an organization that helps people volunteer with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

Upon completing the application process with Sar-El, Sweet was stationed near Haifa, at the base in the north. “I was there for a week putting together bunk beds, setting up tents, putting mattresses on mattress covers, and moving bunk beds across the base to another facility,” he said. His work on the base primarily focused on preparing for the influx of soldiers expected to arrive from the frontlines. 

During his volunteer experience, Sweet witnessed exercises simulating the environment of combat, complete with strobe lights and blaring sirens. “They were performing aid flawlessly to someone on the ground, preparing to do it for real. It was intense to witness,” Sweet said. 

The volunteer group was diverse, with people coming from around the world. “My roommate was from Germany. He wasn’t Jewish and he had no affiliation with Israel, but he told me that he came to Israel because he wanted to do something to help,” said Sweet.

After a week of volunteering, Sweet took a week to travel around Israel, visiting places such as Hostage Square and the Re’im music festival. Talking with soldiers in the evenings, he said, “Much of what I heard feels like it’s not just my story to tell. It’s important to share these stories.”

“I spoke directly with Israeli soldiers returning from Gaza who recounted how they had tried to move large numbers of Palestinians to safety, but the civilians were blocked by the Hamas battalion and forced to turn back,” said Sweet. “The IDF soldiers that I was speaking with said they built a roadway for the Palestinian civilians to safely pass along the beach where they had also set up temporary shelters…there was never a U.S. headline about that.”

Sweet noted a conversation with a medical soldier, a recent medical school graduate now serving in the IDF. Her story shows the reality for many young Israelis who, upon completing their education, find themselves on the frontlines. “She was kind of beside herself…she had never intended when she signed up to be a doctor that the moment she completes her training, she would be entering the IDF during war,” said Sweet. 

Upon returning home, Sweet discovered that emails were sent to his workplace and volunteer organizations, accusing him of contributing to violence in Gaza. “It immediately became clear when I got home that someone had emailed all of the organizations that I work with trying to defame my character. It fortunately did not work,” said Sweet, “It makes you wonder how many others have faced something similar.”

Despite the challenges, Sweet articulated the importance of his and others’ volunteer work, the diversity and unity he witnessed among those serving, and the resilience of the country in the face of conflict. “I’ve been trying my best to share my experience…I would feel very selfish if I had gone to Israel and told nobody about what I saw, what I felt,” he said.