Unity under fire

Lev Echad’s thousands of volunteers help ease life in the South.

Yael Nosinovich, special education teacher in Ashkelon. (photo credit: LEV ECHAD)
Yael Nosinovich, special education teacher in Ashkelon.
(photo credit: LEV ECHAD)
Across the rocket-ravaged South, young adults in white T-shirts with imprinted red hearts are a common site at local bomb shelters, retirement homes and at-risk youth facilities, not to mention supermarkets, pharmacies and private homes. Lev Echad – Emergency Civilian Aid volunteers can be seen everywhere in their signature T-shirts, providing assistance to people and areas in need of help during the stressful time with rocket threats from the Gaza Strip.
Over 2,500 volunteers are deployed across southern Israel in 11 central points, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Kiryat Malachi, Dimona, Shafir, Merhavim, Bnei Shimon and Ofakim.
“Our volunteers are usually in their 20s and volunteer for a day or two in an emergency location,” said Dvora Shimron, a spokeswoman for Lev Echad (“One Heart”) and a volunteer.
“We have a wide range of volunteers from all walks of life in Israel. When our nation is in an emergency situation, thank God all of Israel wants to help,” said Shimron, 21, who studies at the Open University.
“The number of volunteers keeps growing with each day.
Most of Lev Echad’s volunteers are young adults who are either right before or after their army service, as well as university students, youth and even older individuals. The volunteers can spend nine to 10 hours a day in many frameworks. In Ashdod for example, over 470 volunteers are taking part in a variety of missions including the purchase of medicine for handicapped individuals, assisting in a mental health center, working with special-needs children, distributing food and running summer camps for kids.
And in Dimona, in addition to the regular summer camp and food distribution activities, 120 volunteers came together to clean 200 of the city’s bomb shelters.
“It is important to note that many of the volunteers are locally based,” explained Shimron. “This is the idea of Lev Echad – to strengthen threatened populations with the citizens volunteering who are from the cities in distress and not necessarily just by outside volunteers.
“This way civilians become active volunteers and not just passive victims,” she said.
This is exactly the case for Reut Yaakov, 18, of Ashkelon, who volunteers in a summer camp for children of health-care workers in the Beit Halperin Retirement Home in Ashkelon.
“I just graduated from high school and will go into the army in November. This is the least I can do. The situation is not fun and it’s really hard on everyone. There are families who haven’t left their homes for 12 days.”
Yaakov helps look after health-care workers’ children in a summer camp set up by Lev Echad in the retirement home itself. During times of sirens and rocket explosions the health care workers and nurses have to be extra careful with their patients, many of whom are immobile and have difficulty reaching the shelters in time when the siren sounds. But by having their children in a safe framework nearby, it gives them one less worry to think about during their shifts.
Patricia Duda, a volunteer with Lev Echad and a doctoral student in Security Management at Tel Aviv University told Metro that in Ashkelon, 150 volunteers were recruited to operate day care programs for children of doctors, a summer camp for children of local police as well as activities at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center.
“We have 120 children of police officers, ages four to 12, at a summer camp in a local Ashkelon high school. It is important to take care of the children, so that their parents can work as effectively as possible in crisis situations,” she said. “In such a crisis situation, parents who work in security and health care often cannot be with their children. Their work is vital to the city, and in order for them to operate most effectively, this is where Lev Echad steps in.”
For volunteers who do come from the outside, the nonprofit organization, that relies on private donations, provides sleeping quarters, transportation costs and food.
“There is a lot of planning and preparation that goes into running this operation,” explained Shimron. “The planning and strategy for the emergency response, working alongside city municipalities and establishing location centers for our activities is done during periods of quiet and is all planned out by volunteers as well.”
Motti, 23, an agricultural student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, also volunteers in a summer camp for children of healthcare workers in Beit Halperin. He speaks enthusiastically of his work, having come from Jerusalem to Ashkelon just two days before.
“On one particularly difficult day, we gathered a group of senior citizens here and played our guitars and sang together. Later, a group of air force officers came to join us and the elderly patients shared some World War II stories with them,” he said. “You could see how much better everyone felt afterwards.”
“I remember another time when I was volunteering in a bomb shelter and a mom came to pick up her kids. She was on her way to the car when the siren went off. She had to rush back to the shelter, trying to hold onto her three frightened kids. I can’t forget that image,” he said.
In addition, during times of quiet, Lev Echad trains volunteer leaders throughout the country to be ready to report to local authorities and operate the emergency volunteer system. During times of crisis, Lev Echad established a professional recruiting and operating system that is manned by dedicated staff, allowing the organization to manage thousands of volunteers who carry out tasks and missions in conjunction with local authorities.
Lev Echad is accredited by Home Front Defense Ministry, the National Emergency Authority, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and the Education Ministry. In 2012, the Education Ministry’s Youth and Society Administration embraced its operational concept for emergency response.
Founded nine years ago by Yaarah Tiron, who was 19 years old, along with a friend, Eran Galor, Lev Echad was created following the pullout from Gush Katif in 2005. The mission then was to recruit volunteers to assist the local municipalities in the South to address the havoc of relocating Gush Katif residents to new homes and helping thousands of Israelis who were being shelled by Hamas rockets. Nearly two years later, Lev Echad was instrumental in sending volunteers to the North to help out residents during the Second Lebanon War. As the organization expanded, it grew to serve Israelis from all walks of life including Beduin and Arabs.
The Lev Echad founder said that when she and Galor originally thought of a name of their organization, they wanted something that would symbolize unity, love and giving.
“From the first day of its existence, the organization provides solidarity and support for people in need,” she said. “This state is one family with one body and one heart. We have both the responsibility and ability to give a hand and help our people during difficult times.”