by Amy Styer
06 March 2012. Jerusalem, Israel. Red and blue scooters with white boxes and flashing sirens are a familiar site across the city of Jerusalem. Scooters and medical emergencies don’t seem like an obvious match. A box 50 cm long cannot hold a stretcher or even an oxygen tank. In the narrow streets and alleyways of the ancient city, though, regular sized ambulances can get tripped up, stuck in traffic, or lost. This is where the scooters step in.
Able to traverse sidewalks, pedestrian malls, even stairs, the scooters of United Hatzalah emergency medical service are able to reach victims in the first two to four minutes of an emergency. The first four minutes in a medical emergency are crucial to stopping brain damage, restoring heartbeats, and breathing. Hatzalah does not seek to replace ambulance services, but to be a first responder until ambulances can arrive.
United Hatzalah was founded by Haredi Jews in Jerusalem in 2006 and has branches across the country. Seeing Haredi volunteers aiding in emergencies has served as an olive branch in the sometimes difficult relations between the secular population and religious in Israel. Now Hatzalah is extending the olive branch even further reaching out to the Arab population of East Jerusalem.
In 2010 Hatzalah started accepting and training Arab volunteers. Previously, the Red Crescent, aided by the Red Cross, provided emergency services in East Jerusalem. Nameless streets and no house numbers can make emergency response time to the eastern part of the city reach 50 minutes. In certain areas, ambulances require military escort for safety which also greatly increases response time. Concerned residents approached Hatzalah which agreed that there was a need for better emergency response time to the eastern part of the city.
Arab and Haredi EMTs have started working together with much success and mutual admiration. The Haredim praise the sensitivity of Arab volunteers to Jewish religious practices. Entering Meah Shearim on the Sabbath, Arab volunteers know to turn on lights in homes via “Sabbath clocks.” The Arabs praise the commitment of the Haredim. Often it is religious Jewish EMTs on their scooters that are first to arrive to assist the injured in East Jerusalem.
Many resources and dollars have been spent on how to dissolve the psychological divide between west and east Jerusalem. Peace organizations have shown little success. In Global Journal‘s recent ranking of the world’s top 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nearly half of the top 25 organizations were involved in public health issues. Peace organizations were only found in the lowest 25 ranking NGOs. It appears people are tired of politics and talking. Working together in emergency situations could be the bridge to peace.
The pluralism of Hatzalah has even caught the attention of Al Jazeera news service. Although secular, the Middle Eastern-oriented news service has a tarnished reputation. Al Jazeera has been associated with fundamentalist Islamic groups because of airing executions and messages from Osama Bin Laden. It’s a bit surprising then that a documentary called Jerusalem SOS about a Haredi and two Arab Hatzalah volunteers has been airing on the network. The film manages to be neutral in its documentation of the daily life of volunteers in western and eastern Jerusalem.
For many of the viewers across the Arab world, it is their first opportunity to see an accurate representation of Haredi Jews, and it is a strange sight for them to see: men dashing out from prayer, placing a helmet over their kippa and sidecurls, riding off with their long ritual fringes whipping in the wind to an emergency. At the site, they are met by their colleagues—Arabs in orange vests with a large star of David printed across the back, whom they team up with to save lives.
The film touches on another aspect of the life of Hatzalah volunteers. A beep on a pager can mean that the volunteer has to run out of a restaurant mid-meal, a birthday has to be missed, or that children have to go to sleep without a story from abu/abba. The volunteers and their families accept this. Fadi, one the Arab volunteers, said his family actually encourages him to go when he receives a page, as does his Jewish employer. Hezi, the Haredi volunteer featured in the film, said that he became a Hatzalah volunteer because his father was one for twenty years.
What compels two communities that are generally antagonistic to one another to have such dedication in saving each other’s lives? Hatzalah reveals something fascinating about the Arab-Israeli conflict—on an individual level people want to help one another and don’t concern themselves with labels. Fadi said, “Saving lives is a religious act for me. Forget all the politics and the mess. People need to live.” He’s on to something, now to convince the masses.