When Disaster Strikes, They're Poised to Help

Elya Tsur, 27, began his social career only three years ago. It was the summer of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Tsur, then an instructor at the Ein Prat pre-military academy, felt he could not watch the evacuees suffering and not lend a hand.

"A few weeks before the evacuation, I called the Yesha Council of settlements and asked whether they needed volunteers," he said. "They told me: 'Don't worry, nothing will happen and we don't need anyone.' So I went to Nitzan [the trailor-home site where most of the evacuees now are - Y.S.] with my girlfriend and three students from the academy, and we saw there was nothing there. So we got down to work - first and foremost to receive the arrivals in a pleasant fashion, so that there would be someone smiling there after all they had gone through. And also to connect the gas, to help them unpack, to paint the trailors and to finish off the last-minute touches that the workers had left undone."

Within a few days, Tsur had conscripted hundreds of volunteers. "In the five months that we were there, some 2,900 volunteers assisted, meaning that every day there were 150 to 300 volunteers."

At one point, the establishment realized how valuable Tsur was, and he was asked - despite his lack of formal status or experience - to coordinate a project rehabilitating community infrastructures. "We set up temporary community centers, workshops for parents, employment assistance and activities for all hours of the day, while we put ourselves at the disposal of the local leadership, making no attempt whatsoever to take over from them," he relates.

When he left Nitzan, he went to work as a parliamentary assistant for Knesset member Arye Eldad of the National Union. But after a few months, when the Second Lebanon War broke out, he once again called up his volunteers, this time under the official title of a non-profit organization, Lev Ehad (One Heart).

"We were active in Nahariya, Safad and Kiryat Shmona, this time in a more orderly fashion. As soon as we arrived in the town, we would draw up a basic list of needs and then we would go from door to door and ask people what they needed. We did everything - from bringing food and medicines to the air-raid shelters, to feeding and bathing the elderly and sick."

After the war was over, he returned to the Knesset, and in May 2007, he once again rushed to volunteer - this time in Sderot.

"I saw the Defense Ministry and [millionaire Arcadi] Gaydamak competing to evacuate the residents, and it made me mad. I decided we must help the people who want to remain there. Within two days, we organized 150 guys to spend Shabbat in Sderot. We started to march around singing, and did this every Shabbat, so that people started to come to their windows and sing with us."

As they did in the north, Tsur and his volunteers assist Sderot in a wide variety of ways. "There may be a mother who is afraid to send her child to school but needs someone who will stay with him because she has to go to work, or a child who wants someone to play with him," he says.

Tsur's dream is to turn Lev Ehad into a national body that resembles the U.S. National Guard - a task force that can address all needs during an emergency. Even without state patronage, he already has a reservoir of some 4,000 people who consider themselves part of the organization.

"We can mobilize several hundred people for any task, with a few hours' notice," he says.

He plans to call up his volunteers for "civilian reserves" every three months in order to familiarize them with areas of risk and basic needs. Parallel to this, he is setting up a "guard for the elderly" - volunteers who can assist frail people who fell or were assaulted.

In the more distant future, he plans to deal with "social change," but not with politics. "I'm afraid one has to be a very special person to dirty oneself in that sphere," he says. "And certainly at my age, there is nothing to talk about on that subject. I still have so much to learn."

He feels he has missed only one thing in life so far - setting up a family.

"The fact that alongside all my activity I didn't set up a family and I'm still only in the middle of my bachelor's degree show that I'm dumb. In my eyes, the essence of life is having a family. And so long as I'm not married and don't have children, I don't really understand what responsibility is."