Army of volunteers strengthens northern residents

A civilian force of hundreds of volunteers has streamed steadily northward throughout the past two weeks of daily shelling, leaving their jobs and their families to offer help to the beleaguered residents of Nahariya, Safed and Kiryat Shmona. "I realized that my final examinations were being delayed and delayed and decided that I might as well come up here and offer any help I can," said Yael Berman, a 25-year-old student at Haifa's Technion University. She, her sister and another two friends formed a "squad" and contacted Lev Ehad, an organization working to direct volunteers and aid toward the northern communities that need the most assistance. Berman, a resident of Kinneret, south of Tiberias, who studies industry and management, is in her element as the "commander" of Lev Ehad's Kiryat Shmona volunteers. On a daily basis, she absorbs individuals, as well as busloads of people, mostly under the age of 30, who have dropped everything to come to the North. Operating out of the bomb shelter of the city's community center, the Kiryat Shmona branch of Lev Ehad is organized as meticulously as an army warehouse, but with stacks of puzzles, games and art supplies lining the walls instead of ammunition. Lev Ehad, which manages both the volunteers and the donations that flow in to the cities, was founded following the 2005 disengagement in order to offer assistance to displaced families from Gush Katif. Disbanded in December, it renewed its operations shortly after the shelling began two weeks ago, and since then volunteers have been streaming in. Among those who arrived in Kiryat Shmona between two large bombardments Tuesday were a university professor, haredi students from the elite Ponevezh Yeshiva, recently released soldiers (one still wearing his army boots) and a pediatrician, who was immediately whisked off to reinforce the overworked Magen David Adom (MDA) teams in the city. The volunteers represent a cross-section of Israeli society - hailing from Ramat Hasharon, Haifa and the Hebron Hills. Girls in tank tops sit in crowded shelters alongside boys in large knit kippot and roll their eyes at each other when they are told they must stay in the shelter rather than going out and helping people during a particularly strong bombardment. More than 90 volunteers were at work in Kiryat Shmona on Tuesday - half spent the night in the city, and half arrived on the bus in the afternoon following a brief delay caused by shelling that prevented the bus from advancing past Rosh Pina. Berman organized the volunteers on the basis of the sectors into which the city is divided during emergencies. Within each sector, there are area commanders, each in charge of three-person teams that walk between the city's 200 "private" bomb shelters - those that are built in the basements of large apartment buildings - carrying boxes full of toys, games, snacks and art supplies. Jon Kelsen, 24, from Teaneck, New Jersey, was working on research papers about Jewish ethics for his studies at Hebrew University but "felt strange sitting in Jerusalem writing about ethics when here there is a live example of Jewish ethics at work." Delaying the papers, Kelsen and a friend joined a bus of volunteers heading for Kiryat Shmona. His mother, who was visiting him in Israel at the time, has delayed her flight back to the United States until her son returns from the North. Kelsen says that one of the assets that he brings with him is his guitar, but at a group meeting, held in the community center's bomb shelter, he tentatively raises his hand. "I don't really know any children's songs in Hebrew," he says. "If someone could teach me before I meet the kids, that would be really helpful." More than concern over the Katyushas, Kelsen says he is worried that he won't be helpful to the parents tired of long hours in the shelters. But six-year-old Saar is evidence of the volunteers' contribution. After spending two hours in a shelter with three teenage volunteers, the soon-to-be first-grader is eager to show off his accomplishments after hours of activity. "They brought a coloring book," he says. He dashes across the tiny room and jumps back holding a picture of a house. "That's the house he said he wants instead of a shelter," says one of the teenage girls who helped him draw the picture. Since arriving in Kiryat Shmona, Liora has been sitting in the community center's bomb shelter, waiting for the barrage to end so she can start making the rounds and entertaining children. The Rishon Lezion resident works for a theater and has a play that will start running Wednesday evening. "I've been planning to come up for days now. I think this is something that we simply must do. I know that people are sitting in shelters, waiting for something, anything. This way, they'll feel that people are with them," she says as she prepares games for the children, winding balls of yellow yarn around her fingers. Her greatest concern, she says, is that she will have to return to the center without managing to help anyone if the shelling continues to pin her down in the community shelter. "The important thing is that the war ends," Liora says. "But if it doesn't, I'll come right back up again as soon as I finish with this play."