When the ambulance on which he was volunteering in the 1980s got stuck in Jerusalem traffic and failed to reach a choking child in time, then-teenager Eli Beer envisioned squads of neighborhood-based volunteers who could reach patients quickly by foot or cycle and begin first aid until the ambulance arrives.

In 1989, he equipped 15 volunteer first-responders in his Jerusalem neighborhood with police scanners and thus planted the seed for a nationwide volunteer emergency medical services organization, United Hatzalah, formally founded in 2006.

UH’s 3,000 volunteers have treated 1.6 million people in Israel as of 2016. The organization also sends humanitarian-aid teams to disaster areas around the world.

Over the past few years, large cities in Brazil, Panama, Argentina, India, Lithuania, New Jersey and Michigan have asked the award-winning Israeli NGO to help them set up similar systems in order to get aid to victims of accidents and illness within three minutes.

Beer was even invited to represent United Hatzalah and its international arm, United Rescue (hatzalah means “rescue” in Hebrew), at a World Government Summit held in Dubai in February 2016.

“The idea for expansion came from Eli’s TED Talk in 2013,” explains Dov Maisel, UH director of international operations. “Over a million people watched it and thought the idea made sense. Hundreds of people started contacting us from around the world, from government officials to regular citizens, Jewish and not Jewish.”

The Jerusalem-headquartered NGO began training volunteers from Jewish communities in Panama, Argentina and Brazil, but soon decided to branch out.

“In Israel we have Christian, Muslim, Druze and Bedouin volunteers alongside Jewish volunteers, and extending this to general communities is another amazing opportunity for tikkun olam [repairing the world] and to show the good coming out of Israel,” Maisel tells ISRAEL21c.

“We are a nonprofit NGO teaching people how to save people, no matter who they are or where they are,” says Maisel.

United Hatzalah volunteers span the breadth of Israeli society. Photo: courtesy
htUnited Hatzalah volunteers span the breadth of Israeli society. Photo: courtesy

From Detroit to Mumbai

In Panama City, more than 100 United Rescue volunteers are fully active with ambucycles and ambulances. Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo each have about 40 United Rescue volunteer first-responders equipped with ambucycles and/or ambulances.

“We’re working on expanding to New Delhi and Mumbai in India,” says Maisel. “And in two cities in Lithuania, working in partnership with a local voluntary organization and EMS services, 300 volunteers have been enrolled in our training course.”

In Jersey City, New Jersey, United Rescue is graduating its second class of 50 volunteer EMTs and starting to train another 50 in tandem with local EMS professionals. “The first 50 are already making a huge impact, running a few calls every day with an average response time of around three minutes,” says Maisel.

Eli Beer speaking at the first EMT graduation ceremony for United Rescue in Jersey City. Photo by Yadin Goldman
Eli Beer speaking at the first EMT graduation ceremony for United Rescue in Jersey City. Photo by Yadin Goldman

The first training class in Detroit will begin soon.

“Mark Davidoff, managing partner of Deloitte Michigan, was on a Michigan CEOs delegation to Israel a few years ago and visited our headquarters and loved the idea,” relates Maisel. “When he saw we were in Jersey City, he went to the mayor and said, ‘I want to bring this to Detroit.’ We hope this summer we’ll start recruiting hundreds of volunteers there.”

He emphasizes that the United Hatzalah/United Rescue approach is different than local Hatzalah first-responder groups in heavily Jewish US neighborhoods.

“They’re Orthodox Jews who do an amazing job serving their own communities, while we are a grassroots model of everyone serving everyone,” says Maisel. “In Jersey City alone, our 50 volunteers speak 10 different languages.”

He recalls one Muslim volunteer in Jersey City telling him that she is proud to wear the Star of David emblem on her United Rescue vest because of what it represents.

“We’re bringing the light of Israel to the general population,” says Maisel.

This can be accomplished only with “a lot of goodwill,” he adds.

“When people contact me about bringing this over, I tell them we need movers and shakers on the political and municipal level to help us get through the bureaucracy. The seeds have to be planted from the top. We also need someone with access to local funding to support the program.”

Though United Rescue is not profit-making, each unit requires an ongoing budget to cover costs of training, equipment, insurance and technology, he explains.

Cover of JEMS depicting activities of United Rescue in Jersey City on display at the EMS Today conference in Baltimore. Photo by Yadin Goldman
Cover of JEMS depicting activities of United Rescue in Jersey City on display at the EMS Today conference in Baltimore. Photo by Yadin Goldman

Maisel notes with pride that the United Hatzalah/United Rescue project is getting recognition on a professional level as well.

At the 2016 EMS Today  national conference sponsored by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS) in Baltimore, the Israeli organization was one of 10 EMS innovators singled out for its work over the past year and was featured on the December 2015 and January 2016 covers of JEMS.

“There is nothing similar to our model of working on a daily basis on this scale, of so many people willing to be on call 24/7 to do good for others,” says Maisel.

For more information, click here.