The young volunteers with their hearts in Sderot

Lev Echad reaches out to those least able to help themselves

At times it looks like a summer camp, with teenagers milling around, singing, discussing politics and snoozing on the grass. Then they are formed into teams and briefed by Lev Echad (One Heart) organizers before going on another mission in Sderot. Amit and David form once such team. Gavri, one of the organizers, explains that they are about to visit a sick woman living alone in an apartment blocks not far away, to deliver a hot meal and to try and find what help she needs. According to the information that has reached the call center, she requires medication but is unable to go out and buy it herself. "Be polite, don't crowd her. Let her explain her situation in her own good time. Remember she might be traumatized after a Kassam attack," Gavri tells the volunteers, and they're off with two food containers. David is a 19-year-old yeshiva student and Amit is a seventh grader from Jerusalem. "I heard about what's going on here from a friend and came yesterday," says David. "We sleep here in one of the schools. I just couldn't carry on learning Torah as if nothing is happening." Amit decided to skip one of his high school matriculation exams to volunteer in Sderot. "I'll take the exam another time, this is more important," he says. When they reach Rachel Dahan's first-floor apartment in a dilapidated part of town, they find that another team has beaten them to the punch and is busy cleaning the tiny home. Dahan, who has been on her own since her daughters left Sderot, is afraid to leave the apartment. Two days ago, a Kassam hit next to the building and there are cracks in the window frames. She is waiting for representatives of the Amigur public housing company to come and assess the damage. No one has visited her since the rocket fell. Amit and David take her prescription to be filled at the local pharmacy. Over the last two weeks, hundreds of such missions have been carried out in Sderot every day by Lev Echad (one heart), a "Zionist-humanitarian movement" that defines its role as "civilian response in times of crisis." The volunteer organization was founded in the summer of 2005 to fill the shortfall in the authorities' response to the plight of thousands of Gush Katif settlers evicted from their homes. They worked at the temporary housing sites for five months, performing every possible function, from babysitting to hauling furniture. Lev Echad was reactivated last summer in response to the breakdown of local authorities in the North during the Second Lebanon War. Volunteers filled in for local council workers who fled the Hizbullah missiles. Sderot is a different story, says Elya Tzur, the 25-year-old founder and director of Lev Echad. "Here, there is a functioning local authority, and we are working together with them. But you can't expect the normal infrastructure to be capable of coping with a sudden wave of panic and hysteria." Tzur visited Sderot several times over the past year; two weeks ago he decided there was an urgent need to activate Lev Echad's volunteers. "The moment they started talking about evacuating the city - it started with [Arkadi] Gaydamak's refugee camp [in Tel Aviv], and then the Defense Ministry and the Jewish Agency, which started taking people out for a rest - everything changed and panic began. "This isn't the kind of situation that the IDF can deal with. An army can kill terrorists, it can't kill terror. It's something that people feel in their hearts and it has to be vanquished by civilians.," Tzur says. Tzur arrived with 150 volunteers and spent Shabbat in Sderot, sleeping in a school and eating with local families while trying to figure out what Lev Echad could do. "We realized that what needed to be done first of all was to map out the needs of the residents." A situation in which thousands had left hurriedly, and those who stayed behind were under great stress, created a whole range of new problems. "It's the old and the sick, of course" says Tzur, "but also new cases such as families with kids in which the parents couldn't stay home for fear of losing their jobs, or elderly people who usually have caregivers, who hadn't arrived." The volunteers went from street to street, knocking on the doors of the town's 5,500 households to map out residents' needs and to show that somebody cares. "Everybody needs someone to come and ask him how he's doing. It's just as much a matter of morale as any concrete help," Tzur says. Lev Echad is gradually building itself as a permanent organization. It has a database of 3,500 volunteers, mostly in their late teens. The volunteers join after hearing about Lev Echad from word of mouth. According to Tzur, a former officer in the Golani Infantry Brigade's elite Egoz reconnaissance unit, about two-thirds of the volunteers are religious and a third secular, which is a high proportion of secular volunteers compared to other organizations. "We have strict rules against any kind of political activity here," Tzur says. "There are people here who are active in parties from the Right and the Left, but when they volunteer with us, they have to leave it all behind. We need the people we work with to trust us and they won't if we are seen to be serving another agenda." The help provided by the NGO can come in any size or shape, from food and medicine deliveries to taking a dog to the vet. One group of volunteers organizes play hours for young children in the bomb shelters, and at the end of every afternoon, all the volunteers gather to march through the town, singing and playing musical instruments. The march tries to show Sderot there are hundreds of people from around the country there for them. It also allows the young volunteers to let off a little steam. "These volunteers are doing what the IDF Home Command has failed to do," says educator Erez Eshel, Lev Echad's chairman. "So far, Israeli society has failed the test here in Sderot. Now we're resitting the test, and this time we're prepared. This organization is going to be prepared to give the civilian response to the next crisis."