TUPELO – Allen Cayson has been a school teacher and coach for the past 28 years. He loves his work, but he’s long had two dreams that both seemed out of reach until recently: to be in the military, and to travel to Israel.
Now he’s figured out a way to realize both dreams at once.
The 52-year-old Cayson is just back from his third summer trip to Israel, where he served as a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) through Volunteer For Israel (VFI). The program places volunteers from all over the world in Israeli military bases for one-to-three week intervals throughout the year.
Cayson sports a weathered, olive-green IDF shirt with Hebrew lettering on the chest pocket and shoulders. Tan, fit, and upright, with a shaved head and fighter-pilot glasses, he could pass for an Israeli soldier. He said his experience with VFI was one of the best of his life.
“Other than seeing my children be born, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been three times and I’m already signed up for next year,” he said.
Cayson said the trip combined his lifelong fascination with the military and a love for Israel, instilled in him by his father, who was a Baptist minister.
“I always loved the military and planes as a kid. My uncles were in the military, and my dad volunteered for Vietnam but he failed the physical. He became a Baptist preacher, and he always said ‘Israel is the apple of God’s eye,’” he said.
According to the VFI website, the trips offer “an insider’s view of Israel.” Volunteers must pay for their own travel expenses, but once in country, the program provides three kosher meals a day, as well as housing on base and in off-site hostels at no charge in exchange for labor.
Volunteers wear the IDF uniform and work alongside soldiers and other volunteers, performing non-combat duties such as maintenance, packing medical supplies, and repairing machinery. At night, IDF staff teach the groups the basic of the Hebrew language, as well as Jewish military history and cultural customs.
Cayson explained that since the Jewish Sabbath begins Friday evening and ends on Saturday night, VFI participants work from Sunday morning through Wednesday evening, giving them the rest of the week off-base to go sightseeing and relax. While he enjoyed his volunteer work with the Israeli military, it was seeing the holy sites he’d heard about since childhood that proved so powerful.
“I cried like a baby when I walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I went to the Sea of Galilee; I stood on the Temple Mount. I stayed in a hostel in Jaffa overlooking the seaport Jonah left from – the oldest port city in the world. The wood for Solomon’s Temple came through that port. Alexander landed there, as did Napoleon, but his men came down with a stomach virus, so they packed up and went on to Haifa, where they got defeated,” he said.
Cayson said while Israel is a small country surrounded by powerful enemies, its military is a force to be reckoned with, at least in part because every able-bodied Israeli citizen is required to serve.
“All Israelis – men and women – must serve in the military. It’s a mandatory two years for girls and three years for boys. They can stay in or leave after that, but every citizen is in the reserves until they’re much older, and they can be called up at any time,” he said.
As the cradle of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths, day-to-day life in Israel is often affected by warring religious ideologies. On his trip last year, Cayson visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on July 13, just one day before a group of three terrorists at that site opened fire on a group of Israeli policemen, killing two before being gunned down. Yet Cayson said he never felt anxious about his own safety.
“I felt safer there than I would in most American cities. Most of the hostility is toward the army, not ordinary citizens. You can go out on the beach at midnight in Tel Aviv, and there’ll be people – Arabs and Israelis – swimming and cooking out on the same beach,” he said.
Cayson said the camaraderie between volunteers is instant and lasting.
“You work and eat and travel and hang out with people from all over the world. You learn from each other and become instant friends. I had a guy from Norway come stay with me in Tupelo just a couple of weeks ago, and he invited me to come visit him in Norway,” he said.
Cayson said volunteers with VFI not only create lasting bonds with one another, but also with members of the Israeli military.
“When we show up it lifts their morale. They can’t get over the fact that we pay to come do this. It blows their minds. When you grab them and tell them, ‘I love you and I’m praying that the God of Israel will protect you,’ some of them will just break down and cry,” he said.
Now that Cayson has figured out how to live out two lifelong dreams, he said he wants others to have the same experience.
“I wish everyone could do this,” he said.