Yad Sarah: New developments in Israel's oldest volunteer org

In the 45 years since Yad Sarah was first founded, they have built themselves up into something much larger than just an organization that lends out medical equipment when needed.

 The medical equipment lending center at Yad Sarah House, Jerusalem (photo credit: COURTESY YAD SARAH)
The medical equipment lending center at Yad Sarah House, Jerusalem
(photo credit: COURTESY YAD SARAH)

Yad Sarah has the distinction of being Israel’s leading volunteer organization and with 120 branches all over the country, is probably the largest such venture as well. Ask anyone in Israel what Yad Sarah does and they’ll quickly say, “Lend out medical equipment – like wheelchairs, walkers and suction machines.” And they’re right; two-thirds of the country’s citizens have had occasion to experience personally, but Yad Sarah over its 45 years of existence does so much more.

How many people know that there is a play center for special needs children in the afternoons in some of the branches; that a cadre of custom built vans exist to transport wheelchair bound elderly to wherever they have to go: for medical treatment, to family affairs and even shopping in the shuk. There is a division called Home Hospital Service, which enables people recovering from an illness to be cared for at home rather than in a medical center. This rather new Yad Sarah program makes this possible by providing basic essentials such as the loan of a hospital bed, a hoist if necessary, oxygen balloons, and even the periodic visits of home care staff – doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. “What a relief to be treated at home after my operation, rather than in a sterile hospital ward, next to another patient who snores all night or has loads of noisy visitors all day and night,” says Noah, a recent recipient of this innovative benefit.

How did Yad Sarah get started and what is its mission? The founder, former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, had little expectations when he first started lending out inhalators to some young parents in his neighborhood whose babies or tots suffered from croup or bronchitis in the cold Jerusalem winter nights. “We were a young couple, just like most of our neighbors in Ezrat Torah,” Uri recalled. “Our kids were always getting ear infections, colds and shortness of breath. But without the primitive inhalators they had then, we’d have to hospitalize our kids when they got sick. That was an undesirable solution for children and their parents. So we decided to open a gemach for inhalators, which no one had thought of before.” 

A gemach is a free loan society, which is usually located in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, a way to help one another (do a mitzva), either by lending money, cribs, bridal gowns, tools, tablecloths, even pacifiers and a host of other essentials.

“I remember the first time I wanted to build up a reserve of inhalators, I had to travel to the supplier in Tel Aviv. He couldn’t sell me four machines all at once, so I came back with only two. Do you know how many inhalators Yad Sarah stocks today?” he asked me impishly. “Some 47,000!“ 

There are 84 other items that the various lending departments all over Israel can now supply with the down payment of a guaranty. They include milk suction machines for nursing mothers, sophisticated walkers and wheelchairs in tens of designs, urinals, pressure sore protective mattresses, etc.

As a beginning social worker in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, I quickly learned to appreciate Yad Sarah’s provision of oxygen balloons which many patients needed to enable their release from hospital. Before their intervention, it was such a hassle to get the Health Maintenance Organizations documents for the balloons, chase after the supplier who was available only for limited hours in a forsaken warehouse in Givat Shaul and then arrange for transportation to the patient’s home and make sure the family received sufficient explanations how to use it, all while the stress and hullabaloo of release was at its height. Along came Yad Sarah, already in the early 1980s, and made the supply of oxygen as smooth and easy as, well, pure air.

In those years Uri was a yeshiva student and his wife, Michal, taught even as they were beginning their own family of 12 children. People began asking the Lupolianski’s for other medical equipment and the stock they acquired outgrew their modest apartment’s capacity. “My father was liquidating his store in Tel Aviv around this time,” Uri reminisced. “I shared my concern for developing a way to meet this prevalent, very common need: To supply the equipment and services that allow the incapacitated to stay at home. “My father asked to invest some of his savings in the project in honor of his late mother, Sarah, my grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor, and that’s how the organization got its name.”

As the years progressed and Yad Sarah expanded and more services were added even as new branches were integrated. A logical expansion was to open Yad Sarah storerooms in hospitals like Abarbanal, Rambam, Tel Hashomer and Hadassah. The director of Hadassah was so impressed with what Uri had established that he joined the board as chairman and was influential in all subsequent decisions and innovative developments, like a mobile dental service for home-bounds who until then could get no proper care for their teeth. The motto was and still is, when there’s a pressing need for the old, the sick and the handicapped to try and find a solution. The organization’s first center was located in a unique facility, an abandoned train, set up the in a backyard on Rehov Hanevi’im.

Old timers will remember how helpful and accommodating the early Yad Sarah volunteers were already in those years. Eventually an eight-story main building was built especially for the needs of the organization.

Uri’s genius in Prof. Mann’s eyes was enlisting the services of volunteers, especially the recently retired, including professionals, to run the innovative services that Yad Sarah was always adding. The volunteers perform their tasks with motivation, a desire to contribute, to use their skills and experience and utilize their newly free hours advantageously. Today enlisting, training, placing, supervising and rewarding volunteers is a pivotal concern of the organization. According to the latest statistics there are 7,000 volunteers now working actively in Yad Sarah, and they have assisted an impressive 500,000 citizens annually.

 Yad Sarah founder Uri Lupolianski (credit: Courtesy) Yad Sarah founder Uri Lupolianski (credit: Courtesy)

Gradually the focus of the organization widened to include rehabilitation, concern for the family caretakers, support and prevention. One of the most popular programs is called Life Review whereby specially trained volunteers interview elders and help prepare their life story into a book. Yad Sarah was one of the first organizations to distribute beepers for people who live alone and who can call for help electronically if they don’t feel good, fall, feel in some danger, or simply want to talk to a sympathetic listener During the recent Corona period which especially effected the older population adversely, the beeper service was expanded and updated and now tens of people who suffer from loneliness are monitored and assured intervention if the need arises.

Expanding into the medical field even further in the past three years Yad Sarah has opened an evening emergency service in cooperation with Shaare Zedek medical staff,. It also hosts the cardiology rehab division of the neighboring hospital and one of the Kupot Holim dental clinics specializing in geriatric cases. The unique legal advice service especially for the elderly or their offspring called Yad Riva provides advice and intervention for legal issues.

My personal favorite service is the Exhibition Hall that is run by occupational therapist, Shani Rosenfeld, where a staff of retired therapists advise families on equipment and methods of functioning, according to a personalized plan depending on the, patient’s physical state, family situation and degree of motivation. The Hall displays a vast number of exhibits including a model house for the handicapped, tens of wheelchairs, numerous kinds of cushions for sitting comfortably, and computers for all types of handicaps. I was most impressed with equipment demonstrating how a person with no control of his hands can make coffee, play cards, get dressed, and operate a wheelchair. Similarly there are methods almost surrealistic ways a blind person can find his way around, use the telephone, “read” text and use a computer. You have to see the Exhibit Hall to appreciate it.

Finally I cannot sum up the contribution of today’s Yad Sarah without detailing the service for the caretakers, called the “Supportive Hand,” manned by a cadre of psychologists, social workers and counselors who work individually and via groups with the family members who care for the elderly and recovering patients that has become an additional focus of the organization. I also because a volunteer using my former professional experience to run a number of support groups and give individual counseling to the spouses or children of ailing patients. And from experience I can state that treating and empowering the caretakers of dependent relatives is the best investment one can make , because if the family caretakers feel understood and more in tune with their situation their relative will benefit most of all.

I asked Uri how he feels looking back at almost half a century of leading this leading enterprise. Taking into account that he’s also served as deputy mayor from 1983 to 2002, and then mayor of Jerusalem from 2002 to 2008 when he delegated the job of CEO, Uri modestly gives credit to all the wonderful people who have worked in Yad Sarah, the heads of each branch, all volunteers, (as incidentally, he too has remained all these years), he no doubt is imbued with much gratitude to God, who allowed him this opportunity, and great satisfaction at what has been achieved. But his greatest characteristic remains his innovative spirit, always looking for a new challenge, meeting an unmet need, serving the population with still a new, untested project, looking ahead.