: Israeli volunteer medic patrol gets to patients by foot or Ambucycle to start first aid before ambulances can get there.

By Rivka Borochov

At age 16, Eli Beer wanted to save lives. He came to Jerusalem one summer from America to volunteer with the Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s version of the Red Cross.

On the job with the medics of Israel’s official emergency medical service, he noticed that in traffic-snarled Jerusalem, ambulances often lost precious minutes getting to crisis scenes.

So 20 years ago, when Beer moved to Israel, he took with him a localized first-responders model used in many US religious Jewish communities, and transferred it to his new Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit V’gan.

When they receive a call for assistance, Hatzalah (Rescue) volunteer medics run on foot, or jump on Ambucycles, toting with them basics like an oxygen tank to be there in the crucial minutes before an ambulance arrives.

Today, United Hatzalah of Israel works in partnership with MDA, and some of the MDA staffers serve as Hatzalah volunteers. In this way, Beer has helped fill small but critical gaps in response time, since volunteers can race from the office, synagogue or mosque quickly.

The non-profit’s 1,600 volunteers include a cadre of 100 Israeli-Arabs, along with religious and secular Jews. Beer says it’s the only volunteer medical force of its kind to cross religious borders in such a way.

It took chutzpah

In the beginning, it took chutzpah to get off the ground, says Beer. Sometimes people who knew about their free service called them directly. But more often, he and his handful of volunteers, all religious Jews at the time, resorted to all kinds of “sneaky” tactics, including tapping into ambulance radio frequencies to know where the ambulances were being sent.

“We would respond and wait for the ambulance to arrive and in the meantime do triage, stabilization and CPR. And when the medics arrived we would hand them over.”

The MDA ambulance drivers were confused at first, but happy to have assistance. It took longer for Hatzalah to convince MDA to partner with it officially. The answer remained “no” until a new MDA chief executive not only agreed but signed on to be a Hatzalah volunteer himself.

Beer recalls the naysayers, who claimed that average people couldn’t be equipped to give medical care. “When someone’s yelling for help, it could be Superman or a volunteer who works in a butcher shop or a lawyer who runs out of his contract-signing. It doesn’t matter,” is what Beer told them.

Operating on a $4 million budget, United Hatzalah uses an Israeli-developed technology called the Life Compass to help them locate addresses with GPS, so medics riding their Ambucycles can respond within minutes to an emergency, even down the cobblestone alleyways of old Jerusalem.

They can stabilize a patient in shock due to blood loss, clear a blocked airway or administer oxygen before permanent brain damage sets in. Sometimes they do it in the middle of the night, still in pajamas.

And today, as the United Hatzalah movement has spread around the country, you’ll sometimes see Arabs treating Jews, and Jews treating Arabs.

‘We do it because we love it’

The idea to start bringing Arabs into the fold came when an Arab man in East Jerusalem watched his father die in his arms as they waited for an ambulance. The son wanted to see how lives could be saved in his community, which had no first-response medical teams.

He met with Beer, who immediately thought it would be a good idea. This has led to an unusual teaming of medic partners such as Fadi Bahir and Hezy Roth. Together they tour Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods as well as heavily Arab Abu Tor. When they get an emergency call, Hezy jumps out of his fish shop and Fadi leaves his work as a maintenance man at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.

On their specialized bikes they can ride through the old alleyways of Jerusalem that no ambulance can travel. They also enter Arab neighborhoods sometimes hostile to Jewish medical teams, without any fear. People from both sides call them “weirdos,” they say.

But the venture has strong support from Americans. For example, both Harvard attorney and human rights advocate Alan Dershowitz and a Muslim from New York sit on the United Hatzalah board of directors.

Saving each other

Beer recounts endless stories that show the human face and spirit of the nation of Israel, like the time an Arab Hatzalah medic rushed into a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) to save a Jew suffering a heart attack. The people inside were wary of this Arab man attempting to enter a mikveh building. He quickly yelled the organization’s name, with a Yiddish accent, in order to be let in.

It goes in the other direction, too. On the night of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jews, Beer got a call that a man nearby was having a heart attack. Beer ran out of the synagogue with his prayer shawl flapping in the wind and jumped on his Ambucycle, normally forbidden to drive on Jewish holidays, and went to save the patient, who turned out to be an Arab.

Jews believe that saving a life is like saving a whole world. Beer says that he was happy he could perform this act on such a holy day: Arab or Jew, religious or secular — it doesn’t matter.

“It’s a family, and we don’t care about politics,” says Beer, who has won an impressive number of prizes including one at the World Economic Forum in 2010 for his social entrepreneurship role.

“When it comes to saving lives or another person, we don’t look at nationality. We are not a government service and we don’t have to do it. We do it out of goodwill because we believe in it. We do it because we love it.”

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