United Hatzalah’s Lifesaving Mission

Vicki and Gary Erlbaum
Vicki and Gary Erlbaum receive an award at the United Hatzalah fundraiser for all their support. (Photo courtesy of Veri Productions)

On Sept. 16, cast members and a writer from the hit Israeli television program Shtisel visited Philadelphia.

At the Harold L. Zellerbach Theatre in the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, cast members Neta Riskin and Dov Glickman delighted the crowd alongside the co-creator and writer, Uri Alon, in a conversation moderated by Rabbi Shmuel Lynn. Suffice it to say, there are worse ways to spend a Monday night.

But while Shtisel was the draw, the reason for the event was perhaps a bit more serious: saving lives.

The event was a fundraiser for United Hatzalah, a 6,000- volunteer strong emergency medical service organization based in Israel that’s trying to change the world.

United Hatzalah, as founder Eli Beer described it that evening, is a bit like Uber for medical services.

It works like this: Anyone who finds themselves in an emergency medical situation can be attended to by a trained United Hatzalah EMT in a fraction of the time it would take for an ambulance to arrive. Today, United Hatzalah can arrive on the scene of an emergency in an urban area in 90 seconds; in a larger environment, that number is about three minutes. Either way, it’s much faster than an ambulance. It can be the difference between life and death. Oh, and because it is sustained by grants and donations, it is completely free of charge.

“There’s nothing like it in Israel,” said Marjorie Lynn, regional developmental director of United Hatzalah.

But how did Beer begin to do this? And how is United Hatzalah able to save so much critical time?

Beer told the Philadelphia crowd that he’d grown up wanting to be a doctor. At 13, he began his EMT training in Israel. But he saw problems. Intellectually he knew that ambulances were too large to navigate the narrow Jerusalem streets, and after he experienced the consequences himself — arriving too late to the scene of a choking child — he became determined to fix the response time problem. The germinal version of United Hatzalah — hatzalah means rescue — was Beer and his peers, also trained EMTs, beating ambulances to emergency sites by listening to calls on a police scanner smuggled from the United States.

Part of what helped them move so quickly was an innovation called the ambucycle — a motorcycle with a fully stocked medical kit, which can weave through traffic in a way that trucks simply cannot. Steadily, Beer’s group grew.

a United Hatzalah ambucycle
One of United Hatzalah’s ambucycles (Photo courtesy of Veri Productions)

It was not until the last decade that the technology caught up with the idea, and Beer’s vision and credibility allowed him bring all volunteer EMT service in Israel under the banner of United Hatzalah. Volunteers, who are coded into an app by GPS location, skills and areas of expertise, can be pinged at a moment’s notice by a dispatcher, who lets them know that they are the closest and best qualified EMT to an emergency medical situation. Off they go, dropping everything to hop on an ambucycle. Beer joked to the crowd in Philadelphia that the religious volunteers found it to be a good excuse to sneak out of synagogue.

A few weeks ago, a Baltimore family visited Israel, stopping by the United Hatzalah Jerusalem headquarters. A few days later, Leah Pretter, 15, was paragliding with a professional guide when disaster struck. A crash landing severely injured the paraglider, who later died. Meanwhile, Pretter clung to the edge of a cliff.

Quickly, a United Hatzalah volunteer arrived and, from afar, he was able to keep Pretter and onlookers calm as he arranged for an army helicopter to provide assistance. Pretter was badly shaken up, but survived; United Hatzalah psychotrauma volunteers even visited the family to provide PTSD prevention services.

Though Beer did not tell that story in Philadelphia, he told others to a similar effect. Lynn, making note of the support already received from Vicki and Gary Erlbaum, event chairs, noted that many Philadelphians had called her after the event to learn how they could get involved.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here