BY PAMELA FAYERMAN
With more than 60% of Israelis fully vaccinated, the tiny country has the end of the COVID-19 pandemic within its grasp.
While Canada and most countries around the world grapple with a Third Wave exacerbated by virus variants and vaccine supply constraints, Israel has tutored other nations by having the world’s fastest vaccine rollout. Like Israel, Canada started getting vaccines in mid-December last year but Israel had signed deals with Pfizer-BioNTech that guaranteed swift and sufficient supplies. Israel reportedly paid a higher price per dose and also gave vaccine makers access to patient records for the purposes of post-market research.
Life is returning to pre-pandemic normal in Israel. The country of nine million is even getting set to welcome vaccinated tourists later this month.
While the vaccine rollout will be forever recalled as an enviable feat of savvy negotiations, what few outside Israel know about is the role played by non-government organizations whose contributions during the pandemic helped avert a humanitarian crisis. United Hatzalah is one such organization.
On May 9, please join me as I moderate a discussion with the co-founders of United Hatzalah, the remarkable volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) organization that a few thousand Israelis depend upon each day when they are in dire situations. Hatzalah (which means rescue in English) has 6,000 volunteer medics whose prime goal is to get to emergencies within a few minutes to stabilize victims before the traditional ambulance service – Magen David Adom – arrives to take patients to hospital if required.
Hatzalah’s service is free and the organization is almost entirely sustained by charitable donations from people around the world.
Eli Beer conceived the idea for Hatzalah years after he witnessed a terrorist attack on a bus full of passengers in Jerusalem. He was just a child at the time but it left an indelible mark on his life. With his friend, Dovi Maisel, Beer set out more than 20 years ago to create an EMS organization that would use technology and bold ideas to be the first responders at accidents and other emergency incidents. All around the world, ambulance services struggle with response times so Beer and Maisel became obsessed with finding a different model.
The model that evolved relies upon a smartphone app, proprietary GPS location tracking technology, motorcycles and other vehicles (e-bikes, ATV’s, boats and ambulances) equipped with everything in conventional ambulances. The volunteers drop everything they’re doing, no matter where they are. They jump on their motorcycles (Ambucycles), weaving through traffic. At times, they even show up in their pyjamas.
“It’s not about saving Jews, Muslims or Christians, it’s about saving the lives of all people. No matter what religion we are, we all want to be heroes, to save people who need to be saved,” Beer says.
Volunteers become Hatzalah medics after they complete a 200-hour course. They represent a diverse mix. Arab Israelis, Christians and Jews have all embraced the service as volunteers – and as users – because it is so efficient, blind to religion and free. Tips are never allowed but donations are welcome since it’s a non-profit operation.
Indeed, fund-raising is a huge part of Beer and Maisel’s jobs. They travel the world raising awareness about United Hatzalah. Beers’ TedMed Talk in 2013 was a watershed moment in educating many around the world about Hatzalah; the engaging presentation in which he drove a Hatzalah motorcycle on stage for maximum effect has been viewed over a million times.
Since Israel’s Hatzalah service was created in 2006 as a non-government organization (NGO), others have formed in several countries around the world, all borrowing from the culture of the earliest community model that sprung up in a New York suburb in the 1960’s.
Because of COVID, the planned visit by Beer and Maisel to Canada this month was shelved in favour of a virtual Zoom event May 9. The session I will be moderating is co-sponsored by Jewish Federation and Hatzalah. We’ll hear about Beer’s own harrowing brush with death when he got COVID while on a business trip to Miami last spring. He was intubated twice over the course of six weeks but he eventually recovered and his welcome home to Israel was a show of love as hundreds of volunteers and others came to the airport to greet him.
We’ll talk about Hatzalah volunteers who took on heaps of additional roles during the pandemic. They were critical partners in vaccination clinics – setting them up, getting the elderly and infirm to the clinics, and delivering the jabs as well. Volunteers responded to more than 100,000 calls from elderly or infirm housebound individuals. people who needed food, medications and visits for human connection. Many of them are Holocaust survivors.
During the pandemic, Hatzalah volunteers also set up humanitarian hotlines, conducted over half a million COVID tests, distributed personal protective equipment and offered free, anonymous mental health services to first responders and health care workers suffering from COVID burnout. They helped people who were in quarantine and because of their work, they were exposed to COVID-19 at far higher rates than the general population.
“We had a lot of volunteers have to quarantine themselves because of exposures. Maybe about 300 of our volunteers got infected at some point,” Maisel said, adding:
“Our volunteers make a lot of sacrifices but they have a lot of enthusiasm for their work. Every mission is a humanitarian one. There was a lot of nationalism during the pandemic. It’s been a unifying time.”
The psyche of anyone who chooses to work in emergency response is fascinating but those who are compassionate enough to sign up for trauma-inducing, unpaid public service deserve our highest respect and recognition. Beer and Maisel joke that those who volunteer are adrenalin junkies “addicted to saving lives and also a bit meshugah.”
Maisel was previously a paramedic in the Israeli Defense Forces and he joined Hatzalah in 2007. In our phone chat he said:
“This is not like volunteering for anything else. You are on call 365 days a year, 24/7. When the call comes, you have to drop everything and run. Volunteers aren’t people who join out of the blue. If you ask each one, they would all have a story. Something that happened in their family or their community. Something they witnessed and it pushed them to take a step forward. For Eli, it was the bomb attack he witnessed as a young child.
“For me, I was nine years old, waiting at a bus stop when I saw a little girl get hit by a bus and killed. It was 1983 and I was in total shock. She was on the ground for what seemed like forever. She was a first-grader at my school. After that, I vowed to become a doctor but when Eli got me in an ambulance with him, I got addicted.
“We never planned it as a big national organization. We were just a bunch of people in the community with a lot of chutzpah.”
Join the Zoom session by registering here in advance. Beer and Maisel have dynamic personalities so this event promises to be an engaging session as we explore more about the culture of the organization, how it’s expanding around the world, and Canadian donors’ growing embrace of United Hatzalah. We’ll also touch on the recent, catastrophic religious festival disaster in Israel in which 45 Orthodox Jews at the overcrowded event were crushed to death, and hundreds wounded.
United Hatzalah was on the scene within minutes, joining other emergency responders in an unfathomable rescue and recovery mission.