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Shnay: It’s not your typical volunteer assignment

Lester Katz  |  Supplied photo

Lester Katz | Supplied photo

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Updated: October 23, 2013 6:11AM



When Lester Katz eats breakfast each morning, he adds a calcium tablet and a multivitamin pill to his first meal of the day. He then goes for his morning stroll, usually a three- to four-mile walk at least five days a week.

“Hot weather, cold weather or snow doesn’t matter,” he said. “The only time I won’t walk is when it rains.”

A low-dose aspirin in the evening is the closest he comes to taking prescription medicine.

“They gave me a pacemaker last year, but I don’t know why it was done. I can tell you there is nothing wrong with my heart,” Katz said.

If you are one of his Park Forest neighbors, you’ve probably seen Katz on his daily walks. During the last 18 years, however, those walks were interrupted for three weeks in some years by his becoming a “Volunteer for Israel” — a worldwide program where those who qualify work at Israeli defense bases.

Katz, who is Jewish, said he was attracted to the group because of “my affinity for the state of Israel,” but he adds that volunteers come from numerous countries and have various religious affiliations.

It’s not an easy three-week vacation. Bring your own bedding, a couple of suitcases, your medical records and some good shoes.

Laptop computers are not allowed, and if you decide to take photos at the base, you’re on your way back on the next flight. A discussion about religion or politics also automatically punches your ticket home.

Did we mention you pay your own way?

For all that, you get to work about 4 1/2 days a week, said Lester, who at various times painted mess halls, sorted medical records and even tried, unsuccessfully, to rewire tank crew helmets.

Working on military bases is nothing new for Katz, who enlisted in the Army shortly after his graduation from Chicago’s Harper High School in 1943. He was a radio operator on a transport ship ferrying American soldiers to France shortly after D-Day and bringing the wounded back to this country.

After Germany surrendered, Katz became the chief radio operator on an Army transport that was put in the forefront of an anticipated invasion of Japan, which did not take place after the atomic bombs were dropped on that country, forcing it to surrender.

Out of military service and working in the retail shoe industry, Katz and his late wife, Dorothy, moved to Park Forest in 1968 where they raised their three children.

Katz has worked as a “Volunteer for Israel” six times, including a stint this year. That last trip was probably his last.

“I doubt I’ll be going back,” he said sorrowfully.

Although still sharp of mind and in good-enough health, Katz admits that “I’m getting long in the tooth.”

Did we mention that Lester Katz turned 88 in July?

An offensive message

Unless they emigrated from the British Isles, your forefathers did not speak English. Tens of millions of those who came to the United States could not read or speak the language of their adopted country when they arrived.

We are a nation of strangers from distant shores, and that is why I was so offended by a decal on the rear window of a beat-up pickup truck the other day. “Speak English or Get Out,” it read.

Today, there are millions of Americans who speak heavily accented English or who communicate in a different tongue. Some could not pass any anti-democratic “get out” test. So what?

We are a nation that cherishes differences. We speak in 100 different languages and have thousands of different opinions. It is the differences that weld the unbreakable framework of our country.

My English may be better than that of my neighbor, but that does not make me a better person.



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