Inside Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish ambulance corps

After a volunteer for Hatzolah EMS was stabbed in the back, we take a look at the role the all-volunteer ambulance service plays in its community


By Antonia Farzan
The Brooklyn Ink

Two weeks ago, a volunteer for Hatzalah, the ambulance service found in some Jewish communities, was stabbed in the back while he was walking down the street in Crown Heights. The victim called in his own injury and was taken to the hospital in his own ambulance. The incident is under investigation, so it’s unclear what prompted the attack. Still, the NYPD is treating it as a hate crime, possibly prompted by the victim’s religion. While we wait for answers, it seems helpful to try to understand the occasionally complicated role that Hatzalah plays in the neighborhood.

Where did Hatzalah come from, anyway?
Some history: Hatzalah started in Williamsburg in 1965, after a prominent member of the Hasidic Jewish community had a heart attack and died while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. As a response, a group of Hasidic men decided to start their own volunteer-run ambulance service, which they named Hatzalah (alternatively spelled Hatzolah) — Hebrew for "rescue" or "relief." Since the ambulances were all located in one small geographic area, they could react quickly to emergencies.

Soon, Hasidic communities in other neighborhoods — like Crown Heights and Borough Park — frustrated by slow responses to 911 calls, began to copy the model. It has since spread to Los Angeles, Switzerland, Mexico, Australia, and Israel — in other words, anywhere that there’s a large Orthodox Jewish population.

Today, the average response time to 911 calls in New York has improved significantly — FDNY data shows a drop from 11 minutes and four seconds in 1988 to just under seven minutes in 2014. Still, Chevra Hatzalah, the umbrella organization for all the New York-area ambulances, comes out ahead, with an average that ranges from between two and half to four minutes. The organization claims to have the fastest response times in the world, though that hasn’t been definitively tested.

Anecdotally, "you call and they’re right there, almost as soon as you’ve hung up the phone," said Hannah, a mother of three in Crown Heights' Chabad Lubavitch community (who asked not to use her last name). The fact that the EMTs speak Yiddish, and are sensitive to their patients' religious beliefs, is an added benefit.

Who is it for and what does it cost?
In the secular community, two things about Hatzalah generally come as a surprise: that it costs nothing, and that its mission is to serve everyone, Jewish or not.

Since Hatzalah volunteers work for free and community donations cover the cost of medical equipment, the ambulance is free. "That’s especially important in a community like this where there’s a huge income gap," said J. E. Reich, who identifies with Conservative Judaism and lives in Crown Heights.

Despite the obvious wealth on display on President Street, which is lined with single-family brick mansions, many other members of the Chabad Lubavitch community struggle to get by, especially since their faith encourages them to have as many children as possible. Considering that a ride to the hospital can mean a bill for thousands of dollars, Reich believes that the choice to call Hatzalah instead of 911 isn’t a rejection of the secular world so much as a carefully considered economic calculation.

Do non-Jews use it?
Some people outside the faith say they are starting to catch on to the advantages of a conveniently located, no-cost ambulance. "I’ve needed to use the ambulance once or twice, and it actually put me in debt because I didn’t have health care at the time," said Michelle Bonner, who lives in Crown Heights. After a Jewish friend of hers had an accident and was taken to the hospital, she realized there was an alternative. "I was like, oh, I could have just used Hatzalah."

Others in the neighborhood are more skeptical of Hatzalah’s claim to "treat all in need, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity."

"I’ve never seen them pick up nobody of color," said Dorothy Jackson, who has lived in Crown Heights for the past 39 years. For longtime residents like her who were present during the 1991 riots — spurred in part by allegations that Hatzalah’s EMTs had treated the Hasidic driver of a car that hit and killed a black 7-year-old, while ignoring the child — the tension may have died down, but a level of distrust between the black and Jewish communities persists.

New arrivals in the area, who are predominantly young and white, are more likely to worry about Hatzalah’s credentials. "I don’t know what the medical qualifications or the licensing for the volunteers would be," said Jason Palazini, who moved to the neighborhood in May. "For the sake of reliability, I would personally call 911, even though Hatzalah is closer."

Is Hatzalah regulated? Is it safe?
The answer to Palazini’s question (which requires some digging into New York’s Public Health Law to find out) is that Hatzalah is subject to the same regulations as any other volunteer ambulance, such as the Park Slope VAC. The New York State Department of Health requires them to have a certified EMT on board at all times, and specifies, in detail, the equipment needed in the truck, down to the number of sterile gauze pads. In addition, the Regional Emergency Medical Council of New York City sets common standards for all volunteer ambulances in the city, which includes those run by hospitals as well as neighborhood groups like Hatzalah.

Why are the Hatzalah medics all men?
Though the city treats it like any secular ambulance, Hatzalah’s religious roots have led to controversy at times. Most recently, a group of Hasidic women petitioned the group and asked to be allowed to serve as volunteers. Within the Hasidic community, men and women are prohibited from working side by side, so Hatzalah has traditionally been an all-male group, causing a certain amount of awkwardness for women in labor.

"Next thing you know, at the bakery the guy delivering your order is the guy who delivered your baby. It could be your child’s rebbe at school. It’s not the most comfortable of situations," Rachel Freier, the group’s leader, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Hatzalah rejected their request, and Freier went on to form an all-female volunteer ambulance corps named Ezras Nashim, which translates to "Help for women." Still, the ban on female EMTs led to criticism of groups that have supported Chevra Hatzalah financially. Up until recently, the organization didn’t take donations from outside the Jewish community, but in 2010, it took a $445,000 grant from the New York State Assembly to improve the dispatch system at its command center in Flatbush. That same year, the Verizon Foundation donated $30,000 to the Riverdale chapter so that it could upgrade its radios.

For Hatzalah’s supporters, apparently, the organization’s quick response time in the neighborhoods that it covers overrides any concerns about gender discrimination.

So what happened to that EMT, anyway?

Hatzalah’s omnipresence certainly paid off in the case of David Katz, the volunteer who was attacked in Crown Heights while walking down the street. As noted above, he called in his own injury over the radio dispatch system, and other nearby volunteers responded and took him to Kings County Hospital in his own ambulance. He was treated for a three-inch deep laceration in back and later released, and is expected to make a fully recovery.

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