United Hatzalah: Our mission is to save lives

"At an early age, I realized what I wanted to do was to save lives. I wanted to be a doctor, but instead life took me in the direction of creating a volunteer EMS organization."

Yehuda and the United Hatzalah team (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehuda and the United Hatzalah team
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I have been working in emergency medical services for 30 years and began volunteering when I was 16 in the back of an ambulance. The first time that I responded on my own and managed to save a life, I realized that I needed to create a first response organization comprised of volunteers who would be willing to drop everything, run out on their family and friends at a moment’s notice, and wake up in the middle of the night to help strangers whom they never had met. Basically, I needed a bunch of like-minded people to save many lives. But people called me meshugga.
Some years later, I had a dream of achieving a three-minute response time for first responders across all of Israel. People thought that this, too, was meshugga.
Later, my dream grew to take the model of what became known as United Hatzalah and expand it to other countries around the globe. This, too, people thought was meshugga.
But I achieved those goals because people saw that I was meshugga for a good reason and they joined me.
I’ve often believed that everyone is a little crazy in their lives, and that the question we all face in life is: what do we do with it?
At an early age, I realized what I wanted to do was to save lives. I wanted to be a doctor, but instead life took me in the direction of creating a volunteer EMS organization.
I am blessed to have nearly 6,000 people join me in that mission and make my dream become a reality. These people are passionate and dedicated to helping others whom they’ve never met just because help is needed. The result is that we manage to save people who would otherwise not be saved.
When my own father collapsed with a heart attack, the first person at the scene was a Muslim volunteer from east Jerusalem who shares my meshuggas. The feeling I had at that moment was one that I will never forget.
It is the feeling of self-worth that comes with saving another person, not because you get paid to do it, not because anyone is there with fanfare, but simply the knowledge that the effort one puts in, the self-sacrifice involved in responding, can save the life of another.
This is what gives the impetus to a whole network of people all over the country to give of themselves to save others. It has created communities of people and crosses social, religious and cultural boundaries to unify them under a single banner. It is the reason that 20,000 children dress up as United Hatzalah EMTs every year for Purim – because they want to be part of this meshuggas when they get older. It is why we have 1,000 new trainees every year who want to join this meshuggas, so that they, too, can be a part of a national revolution of helping people, no matter who they may be.
I DIDN’T truly understand this until one of my own children started to volunteer. One of my daughters became an EMT while she was a young teenager, and the reason she did this is that she saw the look on my face when I came home after I had successfully saved a life.
The sense of fulfillment after saving a life is beyond anything else I have ever felt. When I succeed at a business deal, it never makes me as happy as when I help someone else.
My children grew up watching this. Today, four of my five kids and my son-in-law are United Hatzalah volunteers and save lives. It shows me that the thing that drives most people is the desire to be a part of something bigger, something that not only helps other people but can make a meaningful impact on another person’s life, while at the same time uniting them with like-minded people across an entire country.
The more meshuggeners we have in this country who use their meshuggas to help others, the better off we will all be.
The writer is a social entrepreneur and president and founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, an independent, nonprofit, fully volunteer EMS organization that provides fast and free emergency first response throughout Israel.