All Israelis know where to turn if they lock the keys (or a child) in a car, get a flat tire, run out of gas, get stuck in an elevator, need an escort on a dark street, or experience other common emergencies: Yedidim (Friends), a nationwide network of 60,000 volunteers.
Founded in 2012, Yedidim normally averages 18,000 calls for help per week.
But ever since October 7, when Hamas launched a full-scale war on Israel, the switchboard is handling 10,000 calls per day.
“On Sunday, for the first time, we opened a special phone number to deal with all war-related requests for help,” says Yonah Engel, director of training for Yedidim’s 25-branch Jerusalem district covering a territory quite a bit north, south, east and west of the capital city.
A large number of these calls are from residents having difficulty closing the heavy metal doors and windows of their home’s fortified “safe room,” called mamad in Hebrew. The room isn’t truly safe if the doors and windows aren’t sealed, and the hardware can get stuck or rusty with disuse.
“We have experience helping with mamads in previous flareups and our volunteers around Gaza have the most experience, but there is no comparison to what is happening now,” Engel said on October 10.
“Yesterday, I personally dealt with two dozen cases, and most were mamad situations.”
On war footing
Engel explains that although Yedidim volunteers represent every sector of Israeli society, Jewish and not, it is a haredi (ultra-Orthodox)-run organization founded by CEO Yisrael Amasi. Ordinarily, its switchboard closes for Shabbat.
“Yisrael told me that once they started hearing the rockets and sirens on early Shabbat morning, he realized we needed to go into emergency mode. He consulted with leading rabbis and they gave him a special dispensation to open our switchboard to do lifesaving operations. That includes people who were desperate to close their metal windows in their secure rooms.”
Yedidim is also answering requests from soldiers. To bolster the standing army, the country called into service 360,000 reservists at the start of the war.
Many reservists lacking transportation turned to Yedidim volunteers to drive them to their bases or meetup points in a hurry.
And then the organization began hearing from “a lot of soldiers who don’t have necessities such as portable chargers, head flashlights, Leatherman knives and hygiene products,” says Engel. Yedidim is also collecting sleeping bags for soldiers.
In addition, on Saturday night Yedidim sent out jeep units from its central and southern districts to help transport the bodies of murdered Israelis from the south.
“In the month of August, I changed 62 flat tires and charged 66 dead [car] batteries,” Engel says, shaking his head at how different the situation is today.
“Regularly, people are extremely grateful when you come and help them. If a woman alone gets a flat tire on a highway at night, knowing we are on the way already makes her feel relieved.
“These past few days, you’re going into people’s homes. Many are very safety-conscious about letting in a stranger. But once you fix the handle or get the metal grate on the window closed, the relief on their face is incredible because you are potentially saving lives.”
It defines me
Born in New York 57 years ago, Engel has been volunteering with Yedidim for over four years. He is one of 18 members of a new motorcycle unit providing rapid response to an average 250 emergency calls per week.
When asked what he does in “real life,” he declines to answer.
“My occupation that earns me a livelihood doesn’t define who I am. Yedidim defines who I am,” he says.
“It’s important to understand that I’m just one very small part. At the moment we have 60,000 volunteers, men and women, who have stepped up from every walk of society.”
Yedidim has set up a special “war room” in a Petah Tikva high school where teenagers answer calls for assistance.
“We even have people with disabilities handling our switchboard. Everyone is pulling their weight. I’m blessed to be speaking on their behalf,” says Engel.
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