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We <3 (love) United Hatzalah!

IMG_00003911This may be the most important post on my blog.  I hope you read it carefully.

Today was “We <3 [love] United Hatzalah Day” for our family!  We learned so much, but this shouldn’t end with us.  I believe that every oleh, tourist, heck, Jew, must know about this organization, which saves countless lives each year not just in Yerushalayim, but throughout the country.

We took the bus down to Yerushalayim for a dedication ceremony on behalf of a Canadian friend who donated an “ambucycle” – a motorcycle ambulance – and who couldn’t travel to be there for the dedication in person.

I thought we’d go, see the motorcycle, shake a few hands (Akiva) and, as we say in Israel, zehu – finished.  But oh, no.  The five of us (big daughter Elisheva skipped classes to join us, for which I’m very grateful) were given the total red carpet treatment.

Saving a single life?

Later on, after we got home, I did some Googling and discovered that the big news for United Hatzalah this month (though nobody mentioned this while we were there) is that a New York millionaire has donated FIFTY ambucycles, at a cost of about $1.3 million. 

Which is fabulous and all, I mean it, but my heart beat proudly, seeing that, to realize that “our” donation of a single ambucycle (it wasn’t really even ours!) was not treated as any less significant… as if they really do give credence to the Talmudic dictum, “he who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” 

Just one ambucycle can save thousands of lives, and they know it.

And oy, what a setup they have there!  I’ve walked past their building maybe dozens of times while in Yerushalayim, and never, ever had a clue as to everything going on behind those doors.

Our tour began with the ambucycle itself, dedicated by our friend in Toronto.  It was clearly brand-new – it still had the plastic wrap on the seat and its supply box was empty.


We then went into the supply depot to see what goes into the kit that all the United Hatzalah volunteers (currently over 2000) take with them everywhere they go.

A lot of stuff to carry around.

So what’s inside the big box in the back of the ambucycle?  A little bit of everything, it turns out.  “It’s got everything an ambulance has, except the bed,” says founder Eli Beer.

There’s a portable bag containing everything from a drug box to bandages to a childbirth kit, all in big, padded red compartments.  There were a few items that our host decided not to pull out, concerned that they might alarm the children.  Good call, I think, especially since GZ is creeped out by all things medical.

Here’s the childbirth kit:


(Of course, to my homebirthed kiddoes, the first question was, why do you need supplies to have a baby?  When I looked at the contents list and explained that there was a blanket inside, they remained unconvinced.)

To show us exactly how much equipment is involved, he started loading Elisheva up, starting out by kitting her up with a bulletproof vest and helmet – I suppose for heading into still-active trouble areas.  These aren’t worn every day, but they’re a fun part of the demonstration.  After that, he added a backpack, supplies bag, defibrillator… as she staggered under the weight. 


It’s a lot of stuff to carry around, but the mobility and portability are the secret to United Hatzalah’s success.  In years of driving an ambulance, Beer says, he never successfully rescued a patient until he responded on foot to a call he’d overheard on a police scanner in his own neighbourhood… and actually saved a life for the first time.

Motorcycles, scooters and medics on foot are nimble in a city, a country, where being nimble can mean the difference between a response time of ten minutes (dead on arrival) or ninety seconds (good chance of resuscitation).

Command and control:  hand in hand

From the supplies room, we headed into Command Central – the hard-core control room from which United Hatzalah responds to nearly 200,000 calls a year. 


*** FOR MAGEN DAVID ADOM (regular ambulance), DIAL 101.

“Jews and Arabs don’t always get along,” says Beer.  But today, “hand in hand… Jews and Arabs are getting together for the purpose of saving lives.”  When Beer’s own father collapsed a few years ago, the first responder at his side was an Arab medic from East Jerusalem.

In addition to complex mapping software which can plot the arrival times of the five nearest United Hatzalah responders (which is calculated intelligently based on whether they’re coming on foot, by car or on a motorcycle!), our host pointed out the central computer which is hard-wired to Home Front Command, the central Israeli agency which sends out missile alerts.  If there is anything going on, anywhere in the country, these guys will know about it first.


The other cool thing is that if you have donated an ambucycle (and really, you must if you can!), they can find it for you anywhere, anytime.  Just punch in the number and their computers can tell you instantly where it is.

Because the rescue workers with United Hatzalah are all volunteers, the ambucycle essentially becomes their best friend – they take it with them everywhere they go.  The volunteers are essentially on duty 24/7 – yes, that’s 7 as in “seven days a week,” unlike a lot of other things in Israel, which are 24/6. 

Anytime, anywhere, they could get a call.  And no matter what they’re doing – our host told us about a time he was in shul on Simchas Torah and had to leave right before the big aliyah he’d paid a lot for – they drop everything and run.  (He said he also had a newborn baby at the time – but that doesn’t matter when you’re a United Hatzalah volunteer.)

When I mentioned that you’d have to have a pretty understanding employer, he told us about a United Hatzalah volunteer who worked as a delivery guy for a meat store.  The boss apparently started getting sick of not knowing when his employee would have to leave, abandoning his chicken deliveries (“He delivered chickens… he delivered babies.”).  But, since they were both religious people, the meat store owner consulted a rabbi who said that he may be losing a reliable delivery guy but he was gaining a half share in the zechut, the merit, of the lives that the delivery guy was saving.  The delivery guy kept his job.

Ambucycles save lives:  the too-scary-for-kids video

After our visit to Command Central, we went inside to watch a video about United Hatzalah and its activities. 

I’ll warn you now:  this video is too scary for children.  And maybe too creepy for adults. 

A father basically dies during his young daughter’s birthday party because the conventional ambulance can’t get to him on time.  Then, the scene is replayed, except he is saved by an ambucycle that arrives within 90 seconds of the call (based on an actual call to United Hatzalah).

Our host realized after the video started that the kids probably shouldn’t watch the guy (actor, but hey, they’re young kids) die, so he fast-forwarded to the triumphant ambucycle scene.  Nevertheless, they were both quite troubled afterwards. 

As with seemingly every event of this type, there were tasty pastries and soft drinks, and we were even presented with “swag” in the form of magnets, brochures and some nifty-cool United Hatzalah hats.

A country run on donations.

On our way out, we waved to “our” ambucycle, while I silently resolved never to drop in on the Command Centre to find out where it is at any given time.  The work these guys are doing is just too important to interrupt.

But that idea, of pandering to demanding American donors, got me thinking hard about the donor-recipient relationship between Israel and chutz la’aretz, which has gone on since even before the state itself was founded. 

A few weeks ago in my Hebrew film discussion class (what?  you didn’t know I was taking a film discussion class?), we explored this issue as part of the classic 1965 film Sallah Shabati (סאלח שבתי) (excerpt here, captions in French only), in which early pioneers are planting a forest.  When wealthy American donors drive up, their fancy-looking Israeli host hammers in a sign dedicating the forest as the “Birnbaum” forest.    But later, after they’re out of sight, he comes with a new sign proclaiming it to be the “Mrs. Pearl Sonnenschein” forest. 


“What can I do?” he asks.  “It’s tourist season.  They all want their own sign.”

Of Yissachar and Zevulun.

Modern Israel is littered with signs, acknowledging all the Birnbaums and Sonnenscheins, generous donors all, over the last century.  Before I came, I admit, I was more cynical about this phenomenon.  If they care so much about Israel, why don’t they move there?  I wondered. 

I still don’t have an answer to this question, but I don’t ask it so much anymore.

Now that I’m here, I’m grateful every time I see an ambulance going past with its dedication, whether from the Canadian Friends of Magen David Adom or from Australia, the U.S., or the United Kingdom.  I’m grateful for every hospital, clinic, and ambucycle bearing the name of somebody outside of Israel who cared deeply about the wellbeing of the people here.

Yeah, it would be incredible if everybody could come live here.  But as in the case of the chicken seller and his ambulance/delivery driver, the Torah speaks of the “Yissachar / Zevulun” relationship, in which one of these tribes (Yissachar / Issachar) worked hard to learn Torah, while the other (Zevulun / Zebulon) became sailors and traders to support them.

I am so, so grateful to our friend in Toronto, and everybody like her who – although they cannot live here – have taken on the role of Zevulun to those of us who are working hard, like Yissachar, to make this a liveable homeland.

Thanks to them, it is a safer home, where lives are saved in a way that respects the land’s holiness, the honour of all its inhabitants… and cashes in on the enterprising high-tech spirit that has made this the “Start-up Nation” we all know it can be at its best.

For more about the spirit behind United Hatzalah, I really recommend watching United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer’s TED Talks video, The Fastest Ambulance?  A Motorcycle.

Did I mention that United Hatzalah emergency responders, thousands of them, are all volunteers?  That they’re on duty 24/7?  That, Muslim or Christian or Jew or whatever, they will save your life for FREE if you ever need them?  Even if you can’t afford a whole ambucycle, do something today to help them out!!!


*** FOR MAGEN DAVID ADOM (regular ambulance), DIAL 101.


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