Lev Echad’s Shir Goldstein, an Independence Day ‘torchlighter,’ recalls post-Oct. 7 scramble to help, organization’s ongoing work with evacuees

Goldstein, a social worker, says she lit the 'generosity' torch at the event in honor of the thousands of people who volunteered with her organization

Shir Goldstein was babysitting her brother’s children on Oct. 7 after he was called up to the reserves earlier that morning when she got a call from the CEO of the humanitarian aid nonprofit Lev Echad asking her to set up the organization’s command center in Tel Aviv.

“I did an about-face and went back to Tel Aviv,” Goldstein told eJewishPhilanthropy

Goldstein, a social worker by training, established the organization’s command center in the city, providing assistance to evacuees, survivors, families of reservists and others affected by the war as Israeli local and national governments failed to adequately respond to the crisis. 

She led the command center for some three months before shutting it down and handing responsibility to government services. At its peak, Lev Echad had 18 such command centers in cities and towns throughout the country.

In recognition of her service, Goldstein was selected to represent the organization in the traditional torchlighting ceremony at Mount Herzl that marks the start of Israel’s Independence Day, which was broadcast on Monday night. 

The 12 torches were lit by 44 people — an unprecedented number — all related to this year’s theme of “Israeli heroism.” Eleven of the torches were lit by groups of people representing: security services, rescue services, public diplomacy, community emergency response teams, rescuers, protectors, hope, health and rehabilitation, victory of the spirit, generosity and the Diaspora. The 12th torch, which was lit without a representative, commemorated the 132 captives still held in Gaza. This year, the ceremony also included the lighting of memorial torches in 12 of the areas most affected by the Oct. 7 terror attacks. (Goldstein was part of the group representing “generosity,” along with five other women who were part of civil volunteering groups after the attacks.)

Goldstein has been involved with Lev Echad and its parent organization, the Ein Prat leadership academy, for a decade. During the 2014 Gaza war, she volunteered with Lev Echad as it helped residents of the southern town of Sderot, and she participated in Ein Prat’s pre-army leadership training program, known as a mechina. Since then, she has participated in two Lev Echad delegations to Ukraine following the Russian invasion in 2022, and up until Oct. 7, was working for Ein Prat to develop a youth leadership program.

After receiving the phone call Lev Echad CEO Tomer Dror on Oct.7, Goldstein returned to Tel Aviv and set up shop in the City Hall.

“I’ll say honestly that I have never dealt with command centers,” she said. “You can say that I jumped into the water… or maybe I was pushed into the water.”

Shir Goldstein stands in front of a room of volunteers for the Lev Echad humanitarian aid nonprofits at a command center in Tel Aviv after the Oct. 7 terror attacks, in an undated photograph.
Shir Goldstein stands in front of a room of volunteers for the Lev Echad humanitarian aid nonprofits at a command center in Tel Aviv after the Oct. 7 attacks, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy/Lev Echad)

Goldstein was immediately inundated with calls for help. “There was just a flood of telephone calls, from the paramedic who needs help in the south to the family with seven kids that doesn’t have a place to sleep for the night,” she recalled. “There were hungry soldiers who’d been fighting all day, and somehow their situation got back to us, so we sent them shawarmas.”

After the first day of handling requests through Post-it notes, the project management firm Monday[dot]com offered to help them set up a database system to organize the process, she said. After that, they set up a logistics center and started working in the hotels for displaced people. 

“We were constantly reorganizing ourselves based on what was needed,” she said. “Every day felt like three months.”

Goldstein said she credits her command center’s success in helping people to two things: her father and her friends.

“My dad would come every day to the command center from Hoshaya [a town in northern Israel]. He’d drive down to Tel Aviv to stop me and tell me what to do, from ‘It’s time for a staff meeting’ to ‘You need to sit and eat,’” she said. “I also brought my friends here. Eighteen of them came and helped me set up the command center. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

Shir Goldstein, who led the Lev Echad humanitarian aid nonprofit's Tel Aviv command center, in an undated photograph.
Shir Goldstein, who led the Lev Echad humanitarian aid nonprofit’s Tel Aviv command center, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy/Lev Echad)

Once the command center wrapped up its work, Goldstein continued working with Ein Prat in Tel Aviv, setting up a center for at-risk youth from the displaced communities, which is opening now in the city’s port.

Goldstein said this is particularly necessary as the schools set up for the displaced communities — mainly from the city of Kiryat Shmona and other towns and villages along the Lebanese border — have struggled to get students to attend them regularly.

“Their school is in Gelilot [an area north of Tel Aviv], and it is a makeshift school in some high-tech firm’s offices. Those are some very difficult conditions,” she said. 

The center helps teenagers in 11th and 12th grade prepare for their army service, study for their exams and helps them find work in Tel Aviv. Goldstein and the other employees of the center visit the teenagers’ usual haunts and pick them up from there.

“We go to the beach, and gather them from the beach, or we go to the mall, and get them from the mall,” she said. “We have all kinds of methods to find them.”

Goldstein recalled getting the phone call from Transportation MInister Miri Regev, who organized the event, alerting her that she’d been chosen to light the torch on behalf of Lev Echad.

“I was in shock. I started laughing — that was my initial reaction,” she said. “I knew that Lev Echad had been given the opportunity to light a torch and that I was one of the candidates, but I didn’t think it would be me.”

Goldstein said that she principally saw herself as representing the organization, not just herself, at the ceremony. 

“I am excited for our organization, which is getting this recognition,” she said. “I feel like standing behind me [onstage] are tens of thousands of our volunteers, who on Oct. 7 were some of the first to show up for whatever was needed, from physical labor to office work.”

Besides her organization, Goldstein said she was also excited for her parents, who attended the ceremony with her. 

This year’s torchlighting ceremony has faced criticism both for the personal squabbling over it within the government and for deeper questions about the appropriateness of holding such a highly produced event at a time of national mourning. (In a rebuke of the official ceremony, a “torch-dousing ceremony” was held on Monday night in the northern town of Binyamina, with families of hostages and evacuees extinguishing flames to protest the government.)

Goldstein said she was aware of the issues but that they did not stop her from wanting to take part.

“It is very complicated,” she said. “The decision to go and to light the torch was primarily for our volunteers. I think about how much strength it gave to the people watching at home, that we are still working with the displaced people.”

Speaking to eJP after the ceremony had been filmed but before it had been broadcast, Goldstein added that the ceremony on Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, was subdued and respectful of the country’s current mood.

“There were no celebrations there. It was clearly felt that this wasn’t a celebration,” she said. “We were lighting these torches to show that there are also good things that happened here, that we can’t just sink into depression and need to give the country spirit.”