United Hatzalah of Israel is the largest independent, nonprofit, fully volunteer emergency medical services organization in the country. It also provides the fastest EMS first response, thanks to the use of ambucycles (medically equipped motorcycles), for free.
What is even more special, however, is that its more than 3,500 volunteers respond to calls and provide treatment regardless of the victim’s race, religion or national origin. They often venture into areas of the country most first responders won’t enter, and volunteers from all religions and cultures come together to provide the country with lifesaving services.
Ahead of Jerusalem Day, The Jerusalem Post spoke with four volunteers from across the religious and cultural spectrum to get their take on how the organization serves as a unifying force in the nation’s capital.
Rabbi Daniel Katzenstein is a member of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in the Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood and was one of the founding EMTs of the Psychotrauma Unit.
He began the interview by describing the strangeness of responding to a call in the middle of praying or on Shabbat, but clarified that in Judaism, saving a life is the first priority, regardless of time or place.
“It looks a little bit odd when a guy rips his tallit [prayer shawl] off,” he joked. “I can’t tell you what I’ve done with my tefillin, you know that’s harder to get off. I’ve done CPR for an hour and a half with my tefillin on, that hurts.”
Regarding the melding of religions and cultures within United Hatzalah, he said, “From the religious perspective, saving a life is of such supreme importance that when you’re saving someone else, or someone is saving you, it’s so incredibly logical that all these external differences are absolutely irrelevant.
“What’s special in United Hatzalah is that there’s no expectation that a religious Jew needs to tone down his religiosity, there’s no requirement that someone who’s secular upgrade his religiosity,” he added. “There’s no objection to an Arab volunteer praying his way, or a Christian praying his way or someone not praying.
We are united for saving lives, with respect to each others identities.”
Khaled Rishek is an Arab from east Jerusalem who previously volunteered with Magen David Adom. He recalled getting involved with United Hatzalah after a few incidents in which MDA wouldn’t respond to calls in east Jerusalem without a police escort.
“A number of responders in my neighborhood spoke about it and a few people went over to United Hatzalah from Magen David Adom. They welcomed us and gave us ambucycles, equipment, training, everything,” he explained.
“In the past there were [difficult things]...
I would arrive at the scene of an attack to rescue people… and would hear bystanders yelling ‘Death to Arabs!’ but that was then.
Now I focus on what I know how to do, to offer help,” he added.
On the subject of United Hatzalah’s policy of inclusion, he said, “People think that there is a division between Arabs and Jews. And the truth is that there is. But [there is also division] between Jews, between themselves. There are people who are surprised to see me arrive on a United Hatzalah ambucycle, and I’m not the only one, there are a lot of Arab [volunteers].
It used to be a haredi organization, and that’s a bit shocking for people, but they are amazing and do a lot for the population. It doesn’t matter what religion, race or sex [someone is], and when they say that they truly mean it. It’s not just a slogan.”
Allegra Mascisch is a religious Jewish volunteer who recently joined United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma Unit, in which her job entails dealing with the mental and emotional injuries suffered by victims and their family members. Among the many scenes that she has been called to help at were two suicides, as well as an incident in which an elderly woman had died in her sleep.
When asked whether United Hatzalah serves as a unifying force, she said, “I think very much so. When we were doing the course, they basically said to us, ‘You can be effective without having a common language, you can be effective without having a common culture, you can be effective without having the same religion.
People are people, and we as helpers have to adapt ourselves to the specific individual who needs our help… A person is a person, and the trauma that they’re going through is a trauma they’re going through.
We all have the same emotions, we’re all human beings.”
Moshe Mizrahi, a secular Israeli, began volunteering with MDA at the age of 20, and was with it for two years. After getting married and having kids, he wanted to find a way to give back to the community, and after noticing a United Hatzalah ambucycle one day in the street, he joined the organization.
Regarding what makes United Hatzalah unique, he said, “The family atmosphere [at United Hatzalah] doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s very important. I can’t say that you’re compensated for your time, but you feel that you’re appreciated for what you do… If you save someone one night, the next day you’ll receive a text thanking you for saving a life. You just see the amount of appreciation, not that you need it, but getting it helps to keep you going.”
Mizrahi summed up the organization’s impact on unity, saying, “The best part of United Hatzalah… is that no matter whether you’re religious, secular, Arab, Muslim, Christian, everybody will assist in any way possible.
“I can go to a house in Beit Hanina [an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem] to resuscitate someone, and next to me could be a Muslim or Christian medic, and we will all work as hard as if it were our own mother. It doesn’t matter if I’m religious or secular, it has nothing to do with my job... It’s an amazing experience that we really are all united, from all walks of life,” he added.
■ This article was prepared in cooperation with United Hatzalah.