The ambulance was bouncing up and down as it raced along the light rail tracks, the driver and his colleagues yelling at one another excitedly in a blend of Yiddish and Hebrew as they consulted their radio and smartphones.
Perched precariously in the back seat, with a dead hassidic man’s fur shtreimel on the seat next to me, I grasped at a rail, fearful of landing face first on the heavily vibrating floor.
We turned off the light rail tracks and in several minutes found ourselves in the middle of a haredi neighborhood (I had lost track of my location by that point) and pulled up to a large crowd of haredim leavened with armed policemen.
“What’s happening?” one of my companions yelled out at a young woman in a Border Police uniform.
“False alarm,” she called back to the members of the ZAKA team with whom I had embedded myself, and I sighed and thanked God.
ZAKA, which means Disaster Victim Identification in Hebrew, is one of the organizations on the front lines of the latest terrorism wave to sweep over the State of Israel.
Its mandate to collect the remains of Israel’s dead in a dignified manner according to Jewish law has led it to become one of the first responders to all sorts of incidents, including suicide bombings, shootings and other violent incidents.
With the rash of stabbings and other attacks plaguing the capital in recent weeks, ZAKA’s volunteers – who drop everything whenever they are called to a scene – have been working around the clock to take care of the final disposition of the dead, which sometimes includes making sure that every possible scrap of flesh and drop of blood is collected.
I met ZAKA senior Jerusalem commander Benzi Oring and search and rescue coordinator Yossi Frankel in Jerusalem’s Old City last week to learn about how their organization is dealing with the uptick in attacks.
Both Oring and Frankel have seen multiple terrorist attacks over the years, including the 2008 terrorist shooting at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and last year’s ax rampage at Har Nof’s congregation Kehilat Bnei Torah.
The job is incredibly stressful, said Oring, who has been volunteering as a medic for decades.
Blowing smoke from one of his omnipresent cigarettes, he said that after an attack he returns to his small and sparsely furnished apartment in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, goes out on the balcony, drinks some homemade wine and lights up.
“It’s a third silent intifada,” he told me.
With more than 180 volunteers in Jerusalem alone, there are no manpower problems, even with multiple concurrent attacks, but the fact that many of their first responders are also trained medics does come into play.
The volunteers’ vests are doubled-sided, Frankel showed me, explaining that one side is marked as forensics and the other for medical care.
The volunteers all go to counseling after attacks, Frankel continued, explaining that debriefings are an important part of the job.
Once, following an attack, Oring recalled, he came home to find one of his children sleeping in the same position in which a young victim had been lying.
“I nudged him to see if he was alive,” he recalled.
Even though this “third intifada,” as Oring put it, has not affected operations, it does raise concerns.
“We risk our lives” at the scenes of terrorist attacks, sometimes arriving before the violence has been quelled, and “we don’t get guns,” Frankel complained, citing government regulations that have prevented ZAKA volunteers, despite organization ties to the national police, from being allowed to purchase or carry firearms.
While it is never pleasant to have to take care of the bodies of the dead, an especially unpleasant task that falls to ZAKA is to also handle the corpses of the terrorists.
“It is not pleasant but it has to be done,” said Frankel.
“We collect all the remains.”
Later on, sitting on stools at Mike’s Place, the wellknown downtown Jerusalem bar he runs, Frankel said that he cannot ever allow himself to drink because of the necessity of being ready 24 hours a day.
“We save those who can be saved and honor those who cannot. There is nothing more important in my life,” he said, adding that he keeps a body bag and a scraper in the bar for emergency calls.
While ZAKA mainly takes care of the dead, it is the job of the volunteers of United Hatzalah to make sure that Oring and Frankel have as little work as possible.
Sitting on a stone bench just outside of the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, dressed in light-blue shirt, jeans and open-backed shoes, Dr. Aryeh Jaffe looks incredibly relaxed.
It is hard to believe that he has just come off of a 26-hour hospital shift after a full week of responding to terrorist attacks.
The IDF combat veteran recalled arriving at one of the recent stabbing attacks on Hagai Street only to hear police gunshots and see a crowd of Arabs running in his direction.
“I tried to find a place to hide. The police covered me and helped me get to the attack and begin treating the wounded,” he recalled.
As he tied tourniquets and stabilized patients, he kept up a running stream of instructions to other medics and first responders, triaging patients and making sure that they were properly evacuated.
“It’s exhausting both mentally and physically because you are always on call, always tense and always ready.”
He undresses only immediately before getting into bed, so as to minimize the time necessary to leave if he gets a call during the night, he continued.
Aside from the obvious stress, the necessity of sometimes speaking directly with the families of victims likewise takes a toll, he said.
The attacks may signal a third intifada, he commented.
“It’s only my feeling, but you can see there is no fear to attack Jews anywhere in Israel… and I’m afraid we are going into something bigger.”
According to Jaffe, who was a medic during the second intifada and is currently working on a master’s in disaster management, United Hatzalah has begun issuing bulletproof vests to its personnel, but, as in the case of his counterparts at ZAKA, it is difficult to obtain a firearms license.
“It’s not efficient,” he complained. “I need a gun. They can still stab me in the neck” when he is wearing a vest.
“I only hope we will be able to carry weapons to protect ourselves. It’s a fight every time with my wife whether she will let me out when there is a stabbing or shooting.”
The concept behind United Hatzalah is simple but powerful.
In the narrow streets and heavy traffic of Jerusalem and other big cities, small motorcycles carrying medics may be able to arrive far in advance of bulky ambulances, allowing patients to be stabilized while awaiting evacuation.
On Sunday afternoon I drove around Jerusalem on the back of Moshe Landsman’s ambucycle, zipping around the back alleys of Mea She’arim and driving down the pedestrian mall on Yoel Salomon Street adjacent to Zion Square.
I held on for dear life as we weaved in and out of traffic, missing the sides of trucks and the mirrors of cars by mere inches, and the world was a fast-moving blur.
Racing out from United Hatzalah’s base of operations near the entrance to the city, we traversed Jerusalem faster than any other land-based conveyance available.
Sitting on the back, I was unable to hear Landsman’s radio, but the jolt of our sudden acceleration and the keening of the siren mounted directly behind my head and penetrating painfully through my helmet indicated that something was suddenly amiss.
We quickly drove to a shop in a narrow arched alleyway down the block from Zion Square, where we came upon a small knot of Jews, Arabs and policemen.
A young Arab man, his face red and eyes teary, was standing on the sidewalk gesticulating angrily. He shrugged off Landsman’s offers of assistance and stalked off.
“Just put milk on it,” Landsman instructed as the man turned away.
After several seconds of confusion a young woman explained that a pair of “young religious girls” in long skirts had stopped by the store and pepper sprayed the Arab in a completely random attack, presumably motivated as revenge for the recent wave of terrorism.
As the police combed the area, Landsman and I sat on the back of his motorbike watching the people flow by, and I marveled at how everyday life goes on in the midst of insanity.
Like Frankel and Jaffe, Landsman said that being armed would be a plus.
According to United Hatzalah chief operations officer Dov Maisel, the organization has nearly 3,000 volunteers countrywide, “uniting all the different walks of life in Israel.”
“It shows a type of special coexistence,” he said. “When things happen, we tackle challenges together. Bridges are built during times of turmoil. The goal overcomes everything.”
He recalled during last year’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, volunteers, both Arabs and Jews, were posting on Facebook and “letting off steam” in inflammatory ways.
“Discussions were sparked on the WhatsApp groups of the volunteers... [with] both sides conducting sometimes a very tense discussion, but at the end of the day they managed to dismantle these mines,” he recalled.
According to Ramzi Battash, an Arab volunteer from Beit Safafa, it is important not to differentiate between Arabs and Jews and to treat everybody equally.
“We approach it like regular work. When you hear it is a terrorist attack, it is more stressful, but we treat it all the same.”
Sometimes Arab medics get sent to areas where Jews cannot enter safely unescorted, he said.
“We don’t endanger our medics,” he said, recalling standing outside of the Har Nof Synagogue last year until the shooting subsided.
“The situation shouldn’t be like that. We need quiet, we need peace,” he asserted.
United Hatzalah’s operations have not been affected to any great degree yet, the group’s founder, Eli Beer, told me.
However, what has changed is that vacations have been canceled, people are showering with their radios, and there is a greater overall level of vigilance.
“It’s affected the whole country but especially [our] volunteers,” he said.
Asked about complaints regarding weapons, Beer replied that he focuses his organization on “saving lives and protecting our volunteers from injuries – we try to get them protective gear so they are not in the field without being protected against shooting.”
“I personally think [guns are] not the best solution for all medics and EMTs [emergency medical technicians].
They should dress properly and run in with med equipment; bulletproof vests and helmets should be a good way of protecting them. Not everyone needs a gun, in my opinion.
“In a medical situation, I would rather treat people and let the police do their job,” he averred.
What has changed is that United Hatzalah has increased the number of dispatchers working in its command centers and has started looking into upping its recruitment and training efforts, should the violence continue in the long term.
“We are always training more volunteers, but we will have to upgrade that the more there is an escalation of intake – people are edgier and have more stress, and that will provoke more calls,” Beer explained.
Burnout, both for the medics and their spouses, is another issue, said Beer.
Aside from watching the volunteers for signs of erratic behavior and providing post-traumatic counseling and other psychiatric services, it is important to make sure that the families feel taken care of.
He recalled a volunteer who last year pulled an elderly person out of a burning car in Ashdod and whose wife demanded that he cease putting himself in harm’s way.
“I called his wife and said I will give him the best vest and helmet we have,” Beer recalled. “Then she allowed him to continue.”
As the tension builds around the country and violence escalates, it will increasingly fall upon the shoulders of the country’s first responders to minimize casualties, even among themselves.