The Jewish Exponent reports: On a recent summer day, Rabbi Shloime Isaacson received an urgent call: A 98-year-woman was having difficulty breathing. Isaacson was on his way to a meeting with a potential donor for a summer-camp program connected with his Northeast Philadelphia Orthodox shul, but he quickly took a detour.He was only about a mile from the woman’s home, so he sped over and arrived about the same time as his congregant, Alec Braverstein.
The two gave her oxygen and checked vital signs before paramedics arrived, saving the emergency personnel valuable time in treating a critical patient and getting her to the hospital, said Isaacson.
“Every second counts,” added Braverstein, a 31-year-old born in the former Soviet Union who recently relocated from Brooklyn with his wife and two children.
Isaacson and Braverstein recently completed 120 hours of emergency medical technician training as volunteers for Hatzolah of Philadelphia, a recently launched emergency-response team under Orthodox auspices. It is believed to be the first such entity in the area.
Isaacson, of Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center, which serves a mainly Russian-speaking population, recalled a man telling him recently: ” ‘I never would have thought I’d see in the city of Philadelphia people coming to respond to a call with a yarmulke and tzitzit.’ ” The man said the sight made him feel his neighbor was in good hands.
And, almost like icing on the cake, Isaacson reported that the potential donor he was heading to when he changed course was so impressed with the story of the mitzvah that he wound up giving money to the camp program.
Hatzolah, which has been up and running now for about two months, is currently a small-scale effort. The group takes emergency calls within two zip codes in the far Northeast — 19115 and 19116 — an area that includes the Klein JCC, which serves a significant senior population. But organizers hope the program will expand and serve to augment the city’s existing 911 response system.
The group does not have its own ambulance at present; volunteers carry medical equipment, including a defibrillator, in their cars. This means that members function as first responders and don’t transport victims; they wait for the proper personnel to arrive.
The volunteers speak numerous languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Hatzolah is Hebrew for “rescue,” and the principle behind a Jewish-run ambulance corps stems from the notion that Jewish law prioritizes saving a life above all else. That means potentially violating Shabbat — or responding on the High Holidays — if someone’s well-being is at stake.
According to Isaacson, even if a call comes on Friday night, “you pick yourself up from the table in the middle of dinner with your family because a life needs to be saved.”
Assistance for All
Moreover, the mission of the organization requires that volunteers help all victims, not just Jews.
The first Hatzolah volunteer ambulance corps began in 1965 in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a way to both cut down on emergency-response times, and alleviate difficulties due to language differences and other cultural barriers.
A number of affiliated groups sprouted up from there.
Today, the Hatzolah ambulances are a regular sight in the New York area; separate groups operate in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, as well as Israel, England and several other foreign countries. (According to the group’s Web site, Hatzolah volunteers were the first to arrive at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.)
Plan to Work Together
Isaacson said that he’d long hoped to bring the Hatzolah concept to the Northeast, but a lack of access to training, funding and equipment made it difficult.
But about a year ago, Adi Kronfeld, a Beth Solomon congregant who heads Patriot Ambulance — a private emergency services company based in Huntingdon Valley — decided to step in. Kronfeld’s firm provided the nascent nonprofit group with training, equipment and use of its high-tech dispatch facilities, although they remain separate entities. (A Hatzolah dispatcher automatically alerts 911 or a private ambulance service to the emergency.)
Braverstein said that the group’s leaders have met with city and state officials, and promise to work in concert with proper personnel; the program has also been certified with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, he said.
So far, nine people have completed emergency medical technician training and taken the state exam. Half of them already work in the emergency-response field, and half, like Isaacson, learned the skills from scratch.
So far, the volunteers are all men.
Roman Kourinnoi, a professional paramedic who trained the group — and who also responds to calls and even does dispatching when he’s not working — said that he devotes his spare time to emergency-response duty because he believes in the talmudic dictum that says saving one life is like saving the entire world.
And he also boasted that Hatzolah’s volunteers have been trained as effectively as professional emergency responders, and are more than up to the task of providing life-saving care.
Kourinnoi, also born in the former Soviet Union, said: “I live in the neighborhood, and I don’t want someone who is not proficient to come to my house.”
For emergency situations in the 19115 and 19116 ZIP codes, call Hatzolah at 215-914-1600.