They are your neighbors, fellow synagogue members, or perhaps your son’s rebbe. They seem like your average person, but they are anything but. These selfless volunteers are like angels in disguise, generously giving of their time, energy and emotions to save lives, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They might miss Shabbat meals, holiday get-togethers and family semahot (celebrations), as they run off to handle emergencies with incredible speed. Activities like sleeping and eating are secondary to their duty and regardless of the weather, time of day or sensitivity of the situation, they are always there. They are the Hatzalah members of our community.

The Right Stuff

All Hatzalah volunteers undergo an intensive selection process. Some are actively recruited, whereas others join through their own initiative.

As the first Syrian-Jewish volunteer, 22 years ago, Morris Abraham recalls his decision to join the Flatbush Hatzalah “We all saw the tremendous work Hatzalah was doing for the community and I wanted to be part of the hesed work too. At that time, there were no Syrian-Jewish volunteers working for Hatzalah. I felt that we needed representation, not just funding with money but to also to have Syrians volunteer.”

Rabbi Aaron Seruya, from the initial group of volunteers on the Jersey Shore Hatzalah, 11 years ago, saw it as an opportunity to do hesed in a field in which he had much background knowledge. As a Lifeguard instructor and CPR instructor, Rabbi Seruya used his expertise in health and safety to benefit the community.

In order to become an EMT (emergency medical technician), each of these volunteers must put in 120 hours of classroom time and ten hours of clinical time (riding along on calls in an ambulance). The three-and-a-half-month course meets twice a week for three hours a night, and is followed by a statewide certification exam. Anyone who passes the exam is then a certified EMT. To maintain certification, however, EMT’s must take 48 hours of continued education units (CEUs) – 24 hours of core studies, and another 24 hours of electives on varying topics related to emergency medical services every three years. CPR certification must also be renewed every two years. These requirements ensure that all certified EMT’s keep up-to-date on current procedures and protocols.

A Rewarding Commitment

While Hatzalah welcomes all qualifying volunteers into its ranks, membership does entail a serious commitment. As a more recently recruited Hatzalah volunteer David Belhassen cautions, “Know your priorities before you join [because volunteering will take up a big chunk of time], and always be willing to learn from veterans.”

“It’s a great organization,” says Jersey Shore Hatzalah Coordinator Avi Abboud. “If you’re sincere and doing it leshem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), then jump in, but understand what you are committing to. Think long and hard about the commitment you are about to make and how much the community is relying on you.”

“There is no such thing as a ‘bad time’” explains Hatzalah volunteer David Kushner. “Whether you’re praying on Yom Kippur or having Pesah Seder, if the call comes in and you’re the closest [to the emergency] – you go!”

But Rabbi Seruya notes that “after doing it for many years, the responsibility becomes second nature.”

“It’s a full time job but it is worth every minute,” asserts Max D., “knowing that we are helping to save lives and keep our community safe.”

“We all know that doing missvot is why we are in this world,” explains Morris Abraham, “so we try to find a balance between family time and being available to help those who really need us.”

Although at times it can be difficult for the families of Hatzalah volunteers, most members described their family as “supportive, appreciating what they are doing for others”. “It also sets a good example for the children, to see what we should be doing with our time,” adds Morris Abraham.

The Unsung Heroes

While everyone involved in this life-saving organization is truly heroic, not all volunteers receive the credit they deserve. In particular, Hatzalah’s ambulance dispatchers might be called the “unsung heroes” of the organization. Though they may appear behind the scenes, they are actually on the front lines – the ones who connect the emergency with the responders. It might sound simple, but few of us realize what being an EMS dispatcher actually entails.

Jersey Shore has seven in-house dispatchers, and 16-18 office dispatchers. They follow a series of shifts and detailed schedules with a back-up communications system running through the internet and regular phone lines. They have redundant internet connections, in case one goes down, and if both go down, they have a backup landline connection. The dispatching team also has a battery backup in case of a power outage. The battery can last up to ten days without power, to ensure the organization’s ability to continue its operations under almost all circumstances.

Aside from broadcasting the call, the dispatcher is the voice that soothes frantic callers. It is up to them to get the right information, keep everybody calm and focused, and walk the caller through what immediate steps they may need to take before an EMT arrives. They need to maintain their composure throughout the call, no matter how alarming it is and what they are hearing. And often, the things they hear can be very upsetting. Dispatchers, as well as responders, are also bound by strict discretionary rules maintaining full confidentiality about all details of every call. No matter the circumstances, complete privacy of all sensitive details in each call is always assured.

The job is especially challenging for home dispatchers, who are on-call throughout the night, sometimes from 6pm-6am. They need to be up in the middle of the night, alert, and with their senses about them to deal with the calls. The dispatchers rotate on Shabbat, manning shifts from Friday at 6 pm (4pm in the winter) until 10am Sunday morning. Throughout a dispatcher’s shift, he cannot leave his house, take time out to shower, or do any other task that might delay his response to a call.

A dispatcher’s job does not end once he takes down a caller’s information and then sends out the call through the Hatzalah radio. He is responsible to stay in touch with all volunteers who attend to the emergency, and the ambulance, until they return.

The investment of time begins well before they start on the job. All dispatchers must undergo several months of training, during which they learn all the rules and procedures, and then take practice calls alongside an experienced staffer.

In short, this is a very difficult job, and amazingly, they do it as a hesed (kindness) for our community – purely on volunteer basis!

The Emotional Side

When asked to identify the greatest challenge involved in being a volunteer, Morris Abraham described the difficulty of “walking into people’s private lives and having to deal with the situation while still maintaining professionalism. It is especially tough when treating an acquaintance where you can’t let a personal friendship or relationship intervene and alter your decision about what needs to be done in that specific situation.”

“Another challenge is facing a situation when there is nothing more you can do,” says Rabbi Aaron Seruya. “Facing that trauma is an emotional challenge. We know that it’s all ultimately in Hashem’s hands, but as the medics on scene, we often can’t help but feeling a certain sense guilt that we couldn’t do more to help the situation.”

Yona Shmueli, another member of the Jersey Shore Hatzalah, who was part of the initial group of volunteers, says, “You never know what you may see on a call, and how it might affect you. The time investment is the minor challenge,” he  maintains, “the major challenge is the toll it can take on you afterwards, the stress and emotional energy that is involved.”

Jewish Unity in Action

You may still be wondering what the difference is between Hatzalah and 911? Avi Abboud explains “When we go on a call, if it’s a baby boy that is being delivered – we’re also going to that brit, or if haas veshalom (Gd forbid), there is a tragedy, we’re all going to attend the missva. As a community organization, everyone we attend to is like family. We laugh together and we all cry together, and at the end of the day, we are all there for each other.”

Gabe E. echoes Abboud’s sentiment “Hatzalah means more than having a basic sense of professionalism, expertise and training. Being on Hatzalah entails going beyond the call of duty, going the extra mile for your patients, your colleagues, and above all your community. Each volunteer has that innate sense of compassion, empathy and unity.”

“Essentially, Hatzalah is about family helping family,” adds Morris Antebi, a Jersey Shore volunteer.

“Hatzalah has in it the beauty of action and unity all working towards a common goal,” says Rabbi Seruya.

One of the nice things about the Jersey Shore Hatzalah volunteers is that they are all a part of the Syrian/Sephardic community, which, in many cases, helps calm everyone. Seeing a familiar face on the scene can put patients more at ease. Shay Cohen describes the relief this familiarity can be for some people. “Being part of such a wonderful organization is both a privilege and an honor. The smiles and relief that we put on a patient’s face is priceless and you can almost hear them say ‘Oh, I know you. You are so and so’s son or brother.’ That in itself is the beginning of the healing process, when a community member arrives on the scene to give a helping hand.”

However, Hatzalah is not limited to the Jewish community. Volunteers are ready and prepared to respond instantly to anyone in a medical emergency.

“Hatzalah is the one organization in the community that has no boundaries. It has no limitations, it crosses all lines,” declares David Kushner.

Morris Abraham adds, “Hatzalah is truly one of the greatest organizations. It makes no difference who you are or what the nature of your medical emergency, volunteers are ready to help.”

Another important distinction is Hatzalah’s financial structure. Unlike official 911 EMS crews, that receive city and state funding, independent volunteer ambulance services like Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore rely almost exclusively upon the support of generous donors. So while dispatchers and responders are the “foot soldiers” on the ground providing the medical care needed, they depend on the community to provide support for equipment and training. As Yona Shmueli puts it, “We thank the community for the opportunity to serve them, and remind them it’s a partnership. We give our time and expertise while the community provides the tools to help us do what we need to.”

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In Case of Emergency

Helpful advice to callers

If, Gd forbid, you are calling Hatzalah, you are likely nervous and maybe even frantic. Try to remember this advice from Hatzalah members, to help make your call go smoother:

  1. Stay calm! Talking a mile-a-minute will only delay response time.
  2. Know your address and be specific about the exact location (cross streets, township, and other details that will help responders find the house). The faster Hatzalah can find you, the better!
  3. Answer all the dispatcher’s questions as clearly and carefully as possible. This will help ensure the best care possible.
  4. Don’t hang up until the dispatcher hangs up.
  5. Make sure your address is lit and easy to see.
  6. When calling at night, after you hang up, make sure you have all your lights on and have someone outside with a flashlight to flag down the Hatzalah responders.

Additionally, several volunteers we spoke with urged the public to never hesitate to call Hatzalah, even on Shabbat. “Don’t take chances with anyone’s life,” Morris Antebi said. “We are here to help you with your emergency.”

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The History of Hatzalah

The Hebrew word “hatzalah” means “to save” or “to rescue”. The organization’s first unit was founded in the late 1960’s in Williamsburg by Rabbi Hershel Webber, who sensed the need for a volunteer ambulance service that would address the religious needs of the Jewish community and improve on EMS response time. After starting out as a first aid group which was basically trained in CPR and carried an oxygen tank, Hatzalah grew and expanded, with Gd’s help, eventually evolving into the internationally-renowned organization that it is today. With over 80 ambulances and over 2000 EMT volunteers, Hatzalah is now the largest volunteer EMS (emergency medical services) and ambulance provider in the United States. Its volunteers operate in New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Hatzalah also has branches outside the U.S., in places such as Israel, South Africa, Switzerland, Mexico City, Belgium, England and Australia. Worldwide, the organization has over 5000 vehicles and over 15,000 volunteers.

On 9/11, Hatzalah staff members were among the first EMS crews to reach the World Trade Center site. When there is a medical emergency, they’re there, and they’re there fast.

The Satmar Rebbe reportedly said that there should be a Hatzalah organization wherever Jewish people reside. The Rebbe’s directive echoes the exhortation that appears in the classic Medieval work Shaare Teshuva by Rabbenu Yona of Gerona (Spain, 1210-1268):

It is very worthy and proper for there to be in every city wise volunteers who are prepared and ready for any emergency to save any man or woman who may be in a difficult situation. (3:91)

New York has the largest Hatzalah group, consisting of 16 divisions. The New York branches all belong to a centralized dispatching and communications system called “Central Hatzalah,” or “Chevra Hatzalah.” Central Hatzalah is based in Brooklyn, and it serves as the organization’s lifeline. Any community seeking to open a Hatzalah branch must go through Central, which keeps track of membership.

Outside the New York area, each Hatzalah branch does its own dispatching and coordinating, and are all responsible for their own budget and fundraising.

In New Jersey, Lakewood was the first town to set up a Hatzalah division, and it was followed by the Jersey Shore in March of 1992. Five years later, branches were established in Elizabeth/Union and then in Passaic. Since then, four other Hatzalah divisions were added in the Garden State, with another two also being planned. Jersey Shore is the only Sephardic-run Hatzalah in the United States, and one of two worldwide, the other being Hatzalah’s Mexico City’s division.

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Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore

An immense debt of gratitude is owed to the Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore for taking care of vacationing community members during the summer months. The remarkable work they do all year round is multiplied several times over during the summer, when scores of Brooklyn families take up residence along the shore. Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore covers seven municipalities and over 10 square miles. It was formed to help alleviate an overburdened First Aid system, and to reduce border disputes between the townships’ ambulance corps.

Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore has their main office on Norwood Avenue. They currently have four fully stocked ambulances, one by the Sephardic Kollel, two by Congregation Ohel Simha (Park Avenue Synagogue), and one by West Deal Synagogue. Their staff during the winter consists of 33-35 volunteers, and in the summer, due to the influx of vacationers, they increase their volunteer staff to 50. Fortunately, the State of New Jersey recognizes EMS certification in New York, enabling NY-certified volunteers to serve on the Jersey Shore Hatzalah during the summer.

Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore works in conjunction with MONOC (Monmouth Ocean County), which runs ALS (Advanced Life Support) in NJ. The locally assigned MONOC personnel are authorized to administer ALS services such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) or intubation. Hatzalah volunteers are trained to call MONOC staff when ALS is needed.

All volunteers of the Jersey Shore Hatzalah are equipped with an AED (automated difribulator) – a must-have when responding to cardiac arrest – as well as a trauma and oxygen bag. A volunteer has everything that the ambulance has, just on a smaller scale. The ambulance essentially just adds the ability to transport the patient.

To reach Hatzalah of the Jersey Shore, call (732) 531-9988 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A dispatcher will pick up and ask a series of questions and then put the call out on a two-way radio and ask for unit direct, and back up units. They will then call an ambulance, call MONOC if needed, and dispatch a police officer. The call will go out over the two-way radio every second until an acknowledgment comes through that a unit has gone out.

The two-way radio and Hatzalah frequencies are essential for ensuring a quick response. The average response time (for Jersey Shore) is under two minutes, but it can even be as little as 60 seconds, since volunteers might live or work just moments away from the emergency. In matters of life or death, this is a remarkable achievement.

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From the Ranks of EMS

Besides the volunteers who take on emergency calls in between managing their regular jobs or businesses, there are the career lifesavers of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) who practically dedicate their entire lives to helping others. But with its demanding responsibilities, lackluster financial incentives and unassuming status, it’s a decidedly atypical choice for most Syrian-Jewish job seekers. Among the few intrepid entrants into this field from our community is Mr. Judah Marcus, whose involvement in the city’s Emergency Medical Service began in the early 70’s. After serving in the U.S. army for five years in Vietnam, on what was affectionately known as the “Jew Crew,” Judah joined BRAVO: Bayridge Volunteer Ambulance Organization as a dispatcher. A few years later, he took a first aid course and trained as an EMT (emergency medical technician). Then, in the early 80’s Judah heard that the city had an urgent need for EMS workers. All he needed was an EMT certification card, a GED (general education diploma from high school) and a clean driving license – all of which he had. So on February 25th, 1980, Judah Marcus began his quarter-of-a-century career as part of the city-run EMS.

But Judah wasn’t satisfied with remaining as an EMT. In 1984, he was promoted to Lieutenant after successfully taking a supervisor’s test. Later, he trained as a paramedic and continued working out of Metropolitan Hospital, assigned with tasks such as starting intravenous, administering drugs, reading EKG, and intubation.

Judah was kind enough to take some time to share with us some of his thoughts and reflections on his outstanding career of life-saving work.

What was the most challenging aspect of being an EMS?

Because it’s really a service profession, you need to be prepared to service all types and treat them all fairly. You meet people living in opulence and people living in the slums with roaches and no food. It makes you appreciate what you have.

The EMS is definitely not the place to make big money, and not everyone is cut out for the work. You see all kinds of things on the calls – cardiac arrest, people passing on before your eyes, the removal of dead bodies, the results of shootings… it takes its toll. If you go into the field, you need another outlet. After dealing with the homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics and psychos, you need a way to let out the tension. People will curse you. I’ve been attacked and spit on, but you can’t take it personally. You must move on.

Looking back on your career, what are your best memories?

Saving people, delivering babies, attending to a cardiac arrest where the patient walks out alive, attending to people having a stroke and getting them to stroke centers in time.

What was you most memorable assignment?

9/11. I got to the site of the World Trade Center 40 minutes after the buildings collapsed, so the danger was mostly from the environment: debris, glass panes and dust. I worked to set up the morgue on site, triage (sort), treatment and transport sectors. I supervised a crew of workers. It was a difficult time, taking account of the human toll, and especially knowing that my country was attacked.

In 2005, after 25 years of distinguished service to the city, Mr. Marcus retired from the EMS and now devotes his time to the family and community that love him.

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