WHO: Hal Gershanoff, 70, of Weston, with Joe Sieber, 47, and Jeff Robbins, 49, both of Lexington
WHEN: One week in March
WHY: ''I went to a presentation of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and an F-15 Israeli pilot spoke. He was in his 20s, bright, personable, a great storyteller," Gershanoff said. ''They were trying to get people to sign up for an upcoming mission. I had been to Israel several times on business and my wife and I went in connection with a tour with our temple, Temple Isaiah in Lexington. I was very interested in this, so I signed up for it."
THE MISSION: ''The amount of tourism to Israel has fallen off so appreciably, especially from American Jews, unlike tourism from evangelical Christians," he said. ''That's turning around some now. But I thought, hey, let me go over there and let them know we care. The purpose of the FIDF is totally apolitical. It's really trying to do anything they can to help the kids, to help their individual days. It's totally, absolutely for the soldiers." Sieber and Robbins also had signed up, and they were accompanied by Reuven Meier of Sharon, regional director of Friends.
SOLIDARITY: ''We started in Tel Aviv, at the Dan Hotel, a very classy place," Gershanoff said. ''We had a local Israeli guide and a driver. Our dinner guest that first night was a general in the Israeli Army. We got the chance to meet some very senior military people, but we mostly spent a lot of solo time with soldiers."
TARGET PRACTICE: ''We went to a training facility for civilian security guards. You go to any shopping center and there's a security guard," Gershanoff said. ''The place was part of Israeli Military Industries, a multifaceted defense contractor owned by Israel Defense Forces. We had our own private training. First, we fired automatic pistols. Then, we were handed Uzis. It's like a very small rifle. The target was a photograph of an upper torso of a potential terrorist. It's so fast, you couldn't get your finger off the trigger."
WHO'S WATCHING: ''We visited different facilities where soldiers were," he said. ''In one place, we went to a kind of central monitoring system. There were 20 or 30 TV screens, and at each position was a young woman in uniform monitoring various locations outside, looking for infiltrators. The viewing area stretched for miles. At another place, there were a few women in front of monitors. One woman pulls out a VHS tape and shows us a recording that had only been taken a couple weeks earlier that shows terrorists infiltrating. You hear a woman calling for the response team and then you watch them being blown away. Whoa! Then we asked if it was one of the women there who had made the call. She said it was her."
VESTED INTEREST: Whenever the group was in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank areas, they wore bulletproof vests. ''A lot of the trip was like playing soldier," Gershanoff said. ''It was kind of fun. It was really kind of a guy thing."
OUT AND ABOUT: Heading toward Jerusalem, they toured Ben-Gurion University before reaching the Negev desert where they took a hike through a colorful canyon. They also attended Friday services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
MUTUAL ADMIRATION: ''Each day, we hit an emotional high," Gershanoff said. ''We had lumps in our throats constantly with those kids. We'd go up to them and say, 'We want to thank you. You're our heroes.' They'd say, 'No, you're our heroes for coming over and showing your support.' At one facility, we saw some 20 photos of soldiers on the wall, five of them young women. All had been killed in service. When you're there, it's all real. At a distance of 6,000 miles, you forget. There, you don't forget it."