A Magen David Adom ambulance stands by near the Western Wall.
(photo credit: MAGEN DAVID ADOM)
At a special Hanukka ceremony at the President’s Residence on Monday, President Reuven Rivlin paid tribute to Israel’s first responders, whom he praised as the country’s “eternal light in the darkness.”
The president invited representatives of ZAKA, United Hatzalah, and Magen David Adom so that he could thank them personally for their devotion to the sanctity of life and their 24/7 willingness to rush to the scene of any disaster in the hope of being able to save a life or to collect body parts that may have been scattered in a terrorist attack.
Of some 100 people representing all three volunteer organizations, the overwhelming majority were haredi paramedics distinguished by their black velvet kippot, beards and ritual fringes trailing over their trousers. All three organizations also have Christian, Muslim, and Druse volunteers.
Passersby might have wondered whether a mishap had taken place inside the presidential compound, given the number of Hatzalah ambucycles (motor scooters with medical equipment) and ZAKA vans parked outside. There were also quite a lot ambucycles inside the complex.
United Hatzalah, which was founded in 2006, now has more than 2,500 emergency medical technicians and paramedics engaged in lifesaving work across the country.
One of the reasons that it was founded was the realization that sick and injured people were not being treated fast enough, because there are areas which ambulances could not traverse, whereas a motor scooter could and do so faster. The national average for ambulance response is 20 minutes. Hatzalah has cut it down to 90 seconds and provides all of its services free of charge.
ZAKA, which identifies and rescues disaster victims, was founded in 1990s following a terrorist attack in July 1989 on a No. 405 bus traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The terrorist seized the steering wheel forced the bus off a mountain road and down a steep slope into a ravine near Kiryat Ye’arim. Sixteen passengers including two Canadians and one American lost their lives and 27 others suffered moderate to serious injuries in the crash. Students from the nearby Telz Stone Yeshiva heard the cries from the ravine and immediately ran down to help. Their instinctive response fueled the ZAKA initiative.
The concept of Magen David Adom started in Philadelphia in 1918 at a meeting attended by David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Henrietta Szold (the founder of Hadassah), but MDA did not become an officially chartered organization in the Land of Israel until 1929, the year that Arab riots affected people all over the country. Today MDA has close to a thousand paid employees and more than 6,000 volunteers, mostly young people in their mid teens.
Haredi singer, musician, writer, poet and impresario Yishai Lapidot, who was the moderator for the event, told the audience that they are wonderful people who had been given the privilege of saving lives even though their mission in this respect was not always successful.
Rivlin noted that the representatives were on the spot wherever a disaster occurred – be it a terrorist attack, a traffic accident or some other tragic occurrence. “You certainly carry your share of the burden,” he told them. “We don’t have too many miracles,” the president added, “but every time you save a life it’s a miracle, and you perform that miracle with so much devotion.”
Relating to some of the situations in which first responders find themselves, Rivlin said that they are heroes – soldiers without uniforms – who are often confronted with scenes which soldiers in uniform would find daunting.
“You bring honor to Israel when terror reigns in the streets,” he said. “It was important to me to tell you that.”
In a symbolic daytime candlelighting ceremony, Rivlin said, “We light one candle on the first day and keep on lighting more each day until the eighth candle, thereby increasing the light, but you bring light to Israel day in and day out.”