May 20, 2024
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United Hatzalah of Israel—One Person Can Make a Difference

One look inside the lobby entrance and attendees knew they’d be in for a treat. A shiny, odd-looking red motorcycle sat against the wall. Wider than most, the “ambucycle” had a large basket in the rear to hold all sorts of medical supplies. There are currently 720 of them throughout Israel as part of the United Hatzalah fleet, along with 5000 volunteer medics. How this all began made for a fascinating breakfast presentation at Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn on a Sunday in mid-December.

After several introductions and a great video, Eli Beer, president and founder of United Hatzalah, addressed the crowd. Quickly, he proved himself to be very likable, with a natural gift for storytelling. At the age of 6, he began, he was witness to a major terrorist attack. A bus in Israel had been blown up, and, as he recalled, a badly bleeding man lay on the ground yelling “Help me, help me,” but no one was there to assist. It made such an impression on Beer that he knew when he was old enough, he would become an ambulance volunteer. His opportunity came at age 15. As Beer explained, “I wanted to save lives.” He remained a volunteer for a year and a half, but never saved one life. He explained that there were only eight ambulances in the fleet, and with traffic being what it was, by the time the crew would arrive at the scene, either it was no longer an emergency situation, or they were too late.

The low point, which Beer described as “the worst day of my life,” was when they received a call from the mother of a 7-year-old boy, screaming that her child was choking on a hot dog. It took the ambulance 21 minutes to reach the scene. The team frantically went into action. A doctor who lived nearby saw the ambulance arrive and offered his help. He took the boy’s vitals, then said nothing more could be done. Beer said to the audience: “All I could think about was that if this doctor, who lived just two blocks away, had been notified when the child first began choking, a tragedy would have been avoided.” He resigned his volunteer position shortly thereafter.

Beer knew there was a better way and began enlisting volunteers to carry it through. If enough people were available to work alongside the official teams, response time could likely be significantly cut. When he posed the idea to government officials, he was quickly shut down. He explained to the audience that his alternative was to resort to a resource quite common in Israel: “chutzpah.” His friends and he got hold of police scanners, which enabled them to learn of emergency situations at the same time as the ambulance corps. Unencumbered by unwieldy vehicles, they were often able to arrive at the scene much sooner. This was the beginning of his free and all-volunteer service that became United Hatzalah.

Initially, it was pretty much a network of Orthodox volunteers, but when Beer approached a noted rabbi about the possibility of including secular Jews in his efforts, he was reprimanded. “This isn’t a shul,” the rabbi scolded. “You are there to save lives.” By opening it up to everyone, the viability of the idea quickly took off, with the response time throughout the country continuously improving. The ambucycles, which clearly offered much more flexibility weaving through traffic than a standard ambulance ever could, helped Beer eventually achieve his goal of consistently having a volunteer on the scene within three minutes. That critical head start has saved countless lives as these true first responders jump into action until an ambulance arrives.

Of all the statistics Beer offered, one stood out that really spoke to the need for the service. On a daily basis, United Hatzalah now receives an average of 1100 calls. He invited audience members to visit the state-of-the-art command center in Jerusalem to see the impressive technological equipment and the multiple banks of monitors that makes such quick responses possible.

Volunteers are committed to dropping everything to run or ambucycle to the scene when they are identified as being geographically closest. Those who respond more than others, which usually means 50+ times a month, receive a defibrillator as part of their emergency pack.

Perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the most comical, part of the presentation was the story of Mohammed. Beer shared that one day he received a call from a guy with a thick accent named Mohammed who said he’d like to join Hatzalah. At first Beer thought he had said Hezbollah. Beer agreed to meet with him, and learned that not long before, Mohammed’s father had suffered a heart attack. Mohammed had waited and waited for help, making a promise that if his father could be saved, he in turn would devote himself to saving the lives of others. Unfortunately, the ambulance did not arrive on time, but Mohammed decided to go forth with his promise anyway. He had about two dozen friends who also wanted to join. Beer gave it some thought, and decided “Why not?” There were cultural learning curves on both sides, but Mohammed has become one of the most dedicated and prolific volunteers in the organization.

The amusing part involved a chasid calling from a taxi on his way to the hospital, with the baby of his very pregnant wife starting to crown. In a panic, he phoned United Hatzalah. Mohammed was on his way home to his wife for Ramadan, but detoured when he got the call. He was able to successfully deliver the baby. The very grateful father wanted to give him a reward, but Mohammed explained that as a volunteer, he couldn’t accept. They argued back and forth until finally the chasid said he wanted to name his son after the rescuer. “What’s your name?” he asked. After more back and forth Mohammed came clean. They settled on the chasid sending a bouquet of flowers to Mohammed’s patient wife. Beer talked about this as an added bonus of United Hatzalah.
“Where else but in Israel,” he asked, “do you have not only every type of Jew, but Christians and Muslims as well working in harmony for the same cause, as they save human lives?”

During the Q&A that followed, Beer was asked if other countries had inquired about his unique emergency response model. He proudly responded that 21 countries had adopted it, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. “In fact,” he added, “the Dubai government has flown me in twice to help initiate the program.”

For more information, to donate or to dedicate an ambucycle, United Hatzalah can be contacted at [email protected] in Israel, or [email protected] in the United States.

By Robert Isler


Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and freelance writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected].

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