Hatzalah Members Team Up With Magen David Adom to Save Lives
By Rabbi Binyomin Zev Karman
Ever since Reb Hershel Weber, sheyichyeh, started Chevra Hatzalah in Williamsburg in 1969, communities across America have become accustomed to turning to them for life-saving care during medical emergencies.
When the war in Gaza broke out, many first responders in Magen David Adom (MDA) were called up to serve in the miluim (reserves), leaving a gap in coverage. Chevra Hatzalah, who had trained with MDA in 2019 for just such emergencies, was ready to facilitate numerous paramedics to supplement the MDA first responders. To date, five Hatzoloh Emergency Ambulance Response Team (H.E.A.R.T.) groups have traveled to Israel for a week apiece to substitute or augment the coverage in the affected areas.
Hamodia spoke with Rabbi Yechiel Kalish, Chief Executive Officer of Chevra Hatzalah; Moshe Zev Weiszberg, Medical Director of Hatzalah, member of Hatzalah of Rockaway-Lawrence and a member of Team 2; Yaron Batito, an Israeli who is a member of Hatzalah of South Florida and a member of Team 2 and Team 3; Chanan Strum, member of Toronto Hatzalah and Team 3; Jeffrey A. Moerdler, coordinator for Riverdale Hatzalah, member of the executive board of Chevra Hatzalah and co-leader of Team 3; and Josh Hartman, Bergen County Hatzalah coordinator, member of West Side Hatzalah for 25 years, and a professional paramedic who trains many Hatzalah paramedics, and team leader of Team 4.
This week, the fifth H.E.A.R.T. group of paramedics traveled to Eretz Yisrael, proving once again that the volunteers consider themselves blood brothers of any Jew in need.
Rabbi Yechiel Kalish: Josh is presently stationed in Israel, and at any moment is open to be sent on a call by MDA. Since Josh and Yaron were instrumental in creating the entire program, perhaps he can share with us how this program got started.
Josh Hartman: I was in Yerushalayim with my family for Yom Tov, with family, and on October 7 we realized that the sirens we were hearing were not the ordinary warnings about rockets.
When I learned that our family would not be getting out of the country as planned, I decided that I would try to help out. As a trained paramedic, I began doing overnight shifts to help decompress the pressure caused by the call-up of the miluim. I reignited our conversation with MDA concerning how Chevra Hatzalah could get involved.
Ten years ago, Chevra Hatzalah began planning ways that they could support the MDA and created the H.E.A.R.T. group. Four years ago, in 2019, some 150 Hatzalah members, 100 from the United States and 50 from other countries, traveled to Israel for training with MDA and Tzahal Search and Rescue. The volunteers remained in Israel for a week to ten days, training in Zikim, a kibbutz two kilometers from the Gaza Strip.
Jeff Moerdler: Sunday night, November 15, the Chevra Hatzalah executive board had a Zoom meeting with the leadership of MDA. MDA told us, “We have this under control, and we do not need you now.” But Monday morning, they called back and said, “We need you!” Josh was already there, and on Monday we worked on this end to put together the first team. By the next Sunday, just five days later, the first group, Team 1, left for Israel.
MDA specifically wanted only paramedics and not EMTs, so we sent out requests to all Hatzalah chapters in New York and across the country asking who would like to join the mission. The coordinators of each local chapter compiled lists of who was available, and we filtered the list to those we thought were most appropriate.
Rabbi Yechiel Kalish: Members who were willing to go were vetted by the coordinators, who worked with David Shipper, one of our executive board members. He vetted all the members from the New York area, and Yaron Batito vetted the rest of the country.
What were the criteria for vetting?
Jeff Moerdler: The decision process of who to send involved two things: the individual’s skill set, which included if the candidate could be dropped into a crisis and manage it alone; did he have the self-confidence or technical skill set to manage a critical patient or multiple patients alone? The other criterion was if the person had the right attitude and temperament to be an appropriate representative of Chevra Hatzalah in Israel.
Rabbi Yechiel Kalish: What happened in those 12 hours between when MDA said “we don’t need” to when they said “we do need” is a result of war being fluid. The initial assessments turned out to be all wrong. By the day after Yom Tov, the miluim were being called up, and they started realizing that there was a depletion of their resources in many areas and they were going to need our help.
Jeff Moerdler: The original mission when they requested Team 1 was, “We are going to put you in the big cities, Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and you will backfill for the MDA members who were called up.” When Team 1 landed, they were told by MDA that there was a change of plans; we don’t need you in the big cities, but we need you down south. Not in the Gaza Envelope, but in the cities down south. Going forward, Teams 1, 2, 3 and 4 were sent to the south and then broken up into smaller groups.
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: We were in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, and Sderot.
Rabbi Yechiel Kalish: Yaron, how did language play a role?
Yaron Batito: I thought language would be a barrier, but MDA did their homework. The way we were deployed by MDA was they gave us a Fly Car, which is a car equipped with basic equipment to respond to medical emergencies but not made to transport patients, and we were deployed as first responders in various locations. The drivers were experienced MDA staff, EMTs who were fluent in English, and they were familiar with the MDA system of communication, the MDA app, their vehicles, and the cities. If there was any language barrier with the patient or the dispatcher, the drivers served as the liaisons and bridged the gap.
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: The system worked well most of the time. I did end up in a situation where I was alone in an ambulance without my driver or my translator. We were on the scene of a motor vehicle accident with multiple patients, and we came in the Fly Car, but the ambulance for the transport was a basic life support ambulance, and they did not have any paramedics. So, I went on the ambulance with them as their advanced life support provider. My driver stayed with the car and met us at the hospital. That left me in the ambulance without my translator, and the EMTs on the ambulance did not speak much English. The patient was a chayal from Sderot who had just come off guard duty. My Ivrit was maspik dai, good enough to be able to get by, and I was able to make it work.
Team 5 left Motzoei Shabbos Chayei Sarah (November 11), and Hatzalah will take a pause with the understanding that they now have trained five teams, and if MDA needs them again, they can turn back to Team 1 and ask, “Are you ready to go again?” Or: “Which team is ready to deploy in 24 or 48 hours?” Hopefully, with the help of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, things will not flare up in the north.
Josh Hartman: We are at the point where they are starting to readjust their recalibration to their “new normal” or “new temporary normal.” They have started in the south to fill up their stations once again by moving the miluim and volunteers around. The full complement of assets, from the ALS (Advanced Life Saving) and BLS (Basic Life Saving), are getting sent back to their stations, and we are helping to ensure that if there are any gaps, we will be there to fill them. As Jeff mentioned, we are also here as an insurance policy in case chas v’shalom something specifically goes awry and they need more resources.
How were you welcomed by the locals and residents?
Jeff Moerdler: Let me share a story with you. The day after I arrived in Ashdod, I went out for coffee in a local coffee place in a KIA Picanto, which is a tiny little car. I’m quite tall, and I did not quite fit into it, and I pitied my partner who was sitting in the back seat behind me.
I ordered a cup of coffee in English since I could barely do it in Hebrew. The fellow who served me spoke English and asked me, “You’re an American. What are you doing here in an MDA uniform?” I explained to him about our mission. He started crying. He could not believe that we had all left our jobs and families and come to Israel.
I actually spoke this morning at my grandchildren’s yeshivah. I told them that our mission can be broken down into three goals: 1) Providing medical care, to supplement MDA and fill the gaps, which we did. We transported one injured soldier, who arrived by helicopter, a very short distance from the helipad to the hospital. We also dealt with one family that was injured by flying glass from a rocket. Other than that, it was all normal medical things. 2) Chessed, supporting the local population, making them feel they are not in this alone. That’s why the fellow at the coffee bar was crying. 3) Being prepared if the worst happened, chas v’shalom. Baruch Hashem, so far that hasn’t happened. But we did carry out 1 and 2, and that chessed piece was an extremely important part. Although that was not our focus before Team 1 landed, we realized quickly how important that was.
Yoran Batito: We went there to offer our help to save lives with our medical expertise, but besides saving lives, I think the kiruv that we did was overwhelming. It became a secondary mission, or maybe even a primary mission before the saving of lives. Whether we were sitting in an MDA station, where 90% or more of the patients were non-religious, and we sat together singing Shabbos songs, or paying for the meals of the soldiers we met in restaurants or lifting up the spirits in the middle of the war, it literally showed mi k’amcha Yisrael. Before I left, I said a farewell speech in the station, and I said I feel like I am leaving my family. Although I thought I was coming here to support you, I am returning much stronger than I left the United States.
Josh Hartman: Every group had the same experience. Every doctor, nurse, everyone was so overwhelmed with emotion and appreciation when they heard our story. We all saw tears from them. This was across the board from every team that was dispatched there. It was really a part of the mission that we did not expect but was the reaction of everyone we interacted with.
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: We had multiple experiences on the road where cars would pull up alongside us on the road at a red light and honk their horns and roll down their windows and say, “You’re here from America to help us? Thank you!” And they showered us with brachos.
You’ve told us how the Israelis viewed you. What was your impression of your Israeli counterparts?
Josh Hartman: Number one, they were very happy to see us. They were very clued in and interested in our level of care, comparing our paramedics and doctors to their own. Everyone was sort of sitting around the station talking to each other, how we treat the patients, the similarities and the differences. We treated patients together, we came in the Fly Cars and then handed off the patients to them, or sometimes we went with them. They were all very receptive and viewed us as a welcome addition.
As the teams arrived in Israel, legendary Hatzalah member Eli Rowe, who has been in Israel since the outbreak of hostilities, met with the team members and trained them as far as the protocols and the names of various medications. Yaakov Gates served as the liaison between Hatzalah members and MDA, and the role of these two devoted individuals deserves special recognition.
What are the differences in the way critical care medicine is administered in America vis-a-vis Israel, and the way you were trained and the way they were trained? Have any of those differences presented conflicts when working together with the Israeli paramedics?
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: For the most part, the mainstay of how we are managing emergency patients is very much the same. The first day they gave us an orientation on how their system works and how they do things. More than 90% of the protocols are the same.
One of the greatest challenges was that the names of the medications are different, yet the vials all look alike. Some of the medications we are used to using have different names in Israel. As an example, the intranasal medication for seizures which in America is called Versed is called Dormicum, and you have to know that difference in order to be able to treat someone who is having seizures. They helped us with that on the first day, and by now some of the earlier groups have put together a “cheat sheet” that they are sharing with all the subsequent teams so they can prepare ahead of time and will know what they are.
Are there any new techniques or ideas that you learned from the MDA crews?
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: There was a tremendous amount that we learned from them. First, unfortunately, they have much more experience than we do with managing mass casualty incidents with multiple people getting injured at the same time. We were able to learn a lot from them as to how to manage that.
We learned a lot on the administrative side of how they do things as well. As an example, here in America there are some stores or shuls that have automatic defibrillators, and they are scattered around the neighborhood. In Israel, they are strategically placed, and the MDA dispatcher has a GPS readout of every one of those 5,000 locations around the country where the defibrillators are located. If there is a call for someone who needs CPR, MDA is able to activate someone to the defibrillator location and pick up the machine and transport it to where the patient is located until someone from MDA arrives.
Jeff Moerdler: It’s not just with the defibrillators. Their dispatch system operates differently than ours. They have a list of CPR trained volunteers, and every MDA member has the MDA app on their phone which has GPS technology, and the dispatcher knows exactly which volunteer is in the area of the patient who is in cardiac arrest. If I happen to be a block away, they will buzz my phone to ask if I am available to respond to the call. Then they will send a link saying there is a defibrillator located half a block to the right, and you should pick it up on the way to where you are going to provide CPR. It’s a great system!
In his role as Chief Executive Officer of Chevra Hatzalah, Rabbi Yechiel Kalish helped create the executive function, working with MDA leadership to make sure the teams were cared for, and that they were a value-add to what MDA was doing. Rabbi Kalish conducted daily discussions with the MDA leadership to make sure our goals are aligned, and that our goals are being met, both in terms of evaluating the H.E.A.R.T. group and evaluating the MDA team.
Rabbi Yechiel Kalish: The focus is on helping the Jewish people at this historical time.
We had asked our Vaad Harabbanim a she’eilah about the mission, and one Rav answered, “How can I answer this she’eilah sitting in my safe home here in Boro Park?” He wanted me to go ask the she’eilah to the Gedolim in Eretz Yisrael. I went to the Gaavad Harav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, and I spoke with Harav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, shlita, about the plan and what we are doing. We asked if they thought it was a good idea, whether or not it was safe, and they gave us their brachah.
Rav Moshe Hillel was amazing, and it seemed from our conversation that he had been called by community members in those areas for various she’eilos, as he knew what was going on in all these different communities. The Gaavad, as well, was quite familiar with what was going on and the level of safety, and he gave a beautiful brachah to the members. And he said he is muvtach (certain) that everyone would go and return safely.
How did your families take to your traveling on this mission to a war zone?
Jeff Moerdler: I say all the time that I could not do what I do for Hatzalah without the support of my family. They understand that on a second’s notice, I will pick up and leave the Shabbos table, or wherever we are. My wife and my parents were very worried, and not particularly thrilled that I went, but nobody said, “Don’t go.” They all understood that this was something we had to do. This is part of our commitment as Hatzalah members.
Yoran Batito: As an Israeli, the minute I heard what was going on in Israel, it was obviously very clear that I would be going one way or another. Although I am married to an Israeli, who grew up in the same kind of situation and is as used to the situation as I am, and despite that our entire extended families are in Israel, nevertheless it was not easy to convince her, as the mother of my children, that I was going to a war zone. Even for me, who was going “home,” it wasn’t easy.
So, I look at all my fellow Hatzalah members who went on this mission, and you might not hear it now because they are all very humble, but they had to agonize and put their families who stayed behind through agony, which includes their wives, kids, and parents. It was asking a lot for them to ask permission and the wives gave their brachah, and those wives are brave women and I know that whatever they did, they did it for Klal Yisrael.
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: I want to thank Hatzalah for sending Shabbos flowers to the wives of every member who was away. It was a gesture that was very well received. It meant a lot and I know the wives appreciated it. They felt that someone was looking out for them and recognized the mesirus nefesh they were making.
What was your takeaway from the mission?
Jeff Moerdler: I think this mission will change all of us that were there, and it is something we will never forget. I thought the trip for the training mission in 2019 had an impact on my life, but that was nothing compared to this. It also made all the team members closer.
It’s new friendships, which is a theme of Hatzalah in general. I have a whole group of friends from Riverdale Hatzalah who are half my age, and some of them are “day members” from chassidishe families living in Boro Park but working in the Riverdale area in nursing homes or Montefiore Hospital or Columbia-Presbyterian, or in construction.
Josh Hartman: We can check all the boxes and say our mission is successful on all accounts. It’s been a stressful time, especially for them, but we set out a goal, we identified our objective, and we achieved it.
Now it is time for us to identify how we can best prepare for the future if chas v’shalom something like this or even something different from this happens, and how we can help. We will focus our efforts on how we can improve upon the success we had over the past few weeks.
Think back to how Mr. Weber started Hatzalah with a single oxygen tank. It’s amazing how Hatzalah is now a global organization.
Moshe Zev Weiszberg: This is because the barriers are falling away. We are just Jews, and we are all brothers and sisters. And baruch Hashem I think that people are starting to feel that more.
Chaskel Bennett is a veteran Hatzalah member who trained with the H.E.A.R.T. groups in previous years and served with Team 2.
“When I arrived in Sderot, the city was a ghost town, as all the surviving residents had evacuated. We were posted in the MDA station, mainly to be on call if a rocket fell, or if chas v’shalom there would be an influx of casualties from the ground invasion. The MDA base became the hub of activity for Sderot.
“For Shabbos, we ordered 25 trays of food, and someone else also ordered a similar amount. An hour before Shabbos, a tank battalion commander came by and told us his group would be going in that night, and the food for them did not arrive. We loaded up his Humvee with trays of food.
“Before he left, I told him, ‘If you see you’re in trouble, everyone should say, ein od milvado!’ I practiced it with him, and he set off with the food, and with a peckel of bitachon.”
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