Eli Beer, the powerhouse behind United Hatzalah of Israel, who has grown an organization of more than 6,000 volunteers with a 90-second response time, who crisscrosses the globe (yes, even during the pandemic) fundraising and sharing his innovative emergency response model, who himself survived a life-threatening battled with Covid-19, and who is an icon of purposeful unity between Jews and Arabs, Jews and Christians, and Jews and each other, has an addiction. “Once you save one life,” he has said, “you want to save more.”
Millions of lives have been saved by United Hatzalah (UH), the seed for which was planted in Eli’s mind when he became an EMT at just 15 years old: Get help to people faster, and you’ll save more lives.
Less known but no less committed to the cause is Eli’s number one partner in UH, his wife Gitty. She not only coped with raising their five children – two of their daughters, as well as a son-in-law and future son-in-law, are EMTs – during Eli’s frequent travels, but founded the organization’s Women’s Unit and has created a unique network of women helping women in haredi communities.
The Jewish Press talked to Eli and Gitty about their harrowing year, amazing accomplishments, and the impact of recent events on UH’s operations.
Many UH social media posts highlight Jewish and Arab volunteers working together. I presume this is done to emphasize the organization’s, and perhaps Israel’s, diversity and cooperative spirit. Has Israel’s recent defensive war made that even more important?
Eli: Our ideology has always been the same – that we need to help anyone and everyone in need of emergency medical attention without regard to religion, race, nationality, or any other factor that can divide people. Israel is a very diverse place, and with this diversity often comes tensions of a religious, nationalistic or political nature. The Torah recognizes that the ideal of saving lives needs to supersede everything else and we recognize that as well. That message will always ring true, especially when the country is healing from so many terrible tragedies and violence.
What portion of your volunteers are from the Arab sector? Do they face retribution in their communities for their involvement, the way Arabs who sell land to Jews do?
Eli: A bit more than 10 percent of our volunteers are Muslim. We are proud to have more than 700 Muslim volunteers, and that number is growing. The Muslim chapters started because it was dangerous for ambulances to enter into Muslim neighborhoods, and in many places, ambulances needed to wait for a police escort to enter the neighborhood [which] often took even longer [to arrive] than the ambulances themselves. Thus, having trained medical personnel in the neighborhoods was something that saved and continues to save many lives.
Our volunteers are dedicated to helping their friends and neighbors, both Jewish and Muslim, and they have come to be accepted by everyone. At the beginning there was some tension in their communities, but once the people in the Muslim communities saw how well our volunteers treat their loved ones who are in need of medical assistance and how quickly they arrive, [the volunteers] have grown to be very respected in their own communities, and even in the Jewish ones.
As inspiring as UH’s barrier-breaking success story is, surely there have been bumps in the road – especially during the recent outbreak of fighting in Israel, with Arab-Israelis turning on their Jewish neighbors in many places. What effect has the unrest had on your operations?
Eli: On the contrary, the recent unrest made the bonds between our volunteers even stronger. Many of our Muslim volunteers ran into various mob scenes in order to rescue the people who were being attacked by mobs. This is true in many cases for Jewish people who mistakenly entered Muslim neighborhoods and were caught in the violence. These people would have died if they were not pulled from the scene by Muslim UH volunteers. This occurred in Tamra, in Kfar Kara, in Jerusalem in a number of places – just to list a few.
The same thing happened on the other side: Jewish responders continued to assist Muslims who were injured during the riots and violence that took place in many cities. There is no stopping the will to save lives and the desire to help one’s fellow man. Not violence, not religious barriers. That is one of the things that makes this organization very special.
The trauma that Israelis in the southern half of the country have suffered during the recent Gaza rocket barrages is hard for anyone who didn’t experience it to comprehend. How did UH manage to provide help during this time – literally under fire?
Eli: In addition to physically treating people who were injured because of direct rocket hits or because they fell while running for shelter, and providing psychological first aid to those suffering from shock as a result of the rocket fire, our volunteers provide a sense of resiliency by just living in these places and being visible. For the beleaguered people of southern Israel, many of whom have been suffering through rocket barrages for more than 20 years, knowing that a United Hatzalah volunteer lives nearby and will respond to a medical emergency should it occur is very reassuring. It helps people cope simply knowing that should the worst occur, a neighbor or friend who lives near them will be there within a very short time in order to assist.
What psychological effects are you seeing among those affected? Is it even possible for one to recover from such a horrific experience?
Eli: Psychological effects take time to develop. Our Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, as well as the city services for each of the towns in the area, are active and provide support and initial treatment for those suffering from psychological stress reactions caused by the violence. With early intervention provided by our teams in the field, and continuing treatment which is done after the fact, it is our hope that we can prevent severe cases of psychological stress disorders or even PTSD from happening.
Does the stress ever get to you? Do you ever think twice before stepping into danger? What coping mechanisms do you use?
Eli: Stress can get to anyone. We are all human. The best coping mechanism is to fight off the causes of the stress, and one of the biggest causes of stress and emotional shock is the feeling of being alone and a sense of helplessness. By working as part of a team, as part of the brotherhood of United Hatzalah, knowing that each of us is just one person inside a much larger network of medical care and of caring for one another, we inherently know that we are not alone. By being a first responder, we know that we are not helpless.
But even we need to be reminded of these things after facing a stressful situation. It is for this reason that the higher-ranking members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit are tasked with phoning each and every first responder who responded to a severely traumatic incident. These incidents are flagged by the unit’s dispatchers, and every single volunteer will receive a phone call from one of the unit’s leaders, who are licensed therapists or psychologists, and will be reminded of these two very important facts. They will be given time to talk about what they experienced and faced and what they did. The phone call reminds them that they are not alone and that they have a whole organization standing behind them and supporting them. This is in addition to receiving phone calls from their chapter head or team head.
Eli, you fell very ill with the coronavirus on one of your trips to the U.S. early in the pandemic and ended up in a Miami intensive care unit for weeks. How did that experience change you and your approach to what you do?
Eli: When I got Covid-19, it wasn’t believed to be a serious threat yet. It was seen as being a disease that could be dangerous for older people. But I have no pre-existing medical conditions, I’m relatively healthy, and in my 40s, and this disease almost killed me. It certainly was a wake-up call. The experience left me with the message that even though I have done a lot of good work to help others, there is a lot more to do and we never know how much time we have to do it.
Gitty, it must have been agonizing knowing Eli was so sick and not being able to travel there to be with him. Did you ever think you were going to lose him? How did you get through the ordeal?
Gitty: Yes, we thought a few times we were going to lose him. The virus was relatively new in the world and hundreds were dying from it every day. But there was no time to dwell on this issue. Israel was shut down right before one of the busiest holidays of the year. My daughter Avigail and I took one of Hatzalah’s ambulances (we are both EMTs and ambulance drivers) and started delivering medication and food, both dry and cooked, to elderly people who were confined to their homes. We literally walked into the house the night of Passover just in time to light candles. The days that followed were the same. Aside from that we took emergency calls and ended up delivering a baby on Passover. This is what kept us going the entire time.
What effect has corona had on UH’s operations in Israel? What about on fundraising – have you taken a hit due to the economic hardships so many have suffered?
Eli: This is a difficult question to answer in such a short space. The coronavirus affected the world in different ways. UH had to adapt quickly to meet the needs of the Israeli people that were caused by the coronavirus, be it with humanitarian aid, providing free transport to and from hospitals and corona hotels for corona patients, putting volunteers inside corona hotels to care for the ill, and playing a big part with the national vaccine operations and assisting in the administering of vaccines as well as the transport of the homebound elderly and Holocaust survivors to receive their vaccines. UH has played a big role throughout the national campaign to fight the virus over the past year and a half.
In the past, you’ve managed to build bridges between UH (and by extension Israel) and other countries, including Arab countries such as UAE, which you’ve visited several times. What’s the status of those relationships now?
Eli: I’d say the status is good. We are always exploring options of bringing the model of UH to other countries. It is a slow process sometimes as there needs to be sufficient interest and groundwork in the other place. Whenever there is interest in hearing what we do and how we do it, we are happy to share.
Gitty, you founded the Women’s Unit and have dedicated yourself to growing it. What percentage of UH’s current volunteers are women? Do they respond to general calls, or only on request?
Gitty: United Hatzalah has close to 1,000 women EMTs, paramedics, nurses, midwives, and doctors who volunteer with the organization. The most important part of life-saving is getting there fast. So whoever is closest will run to the call. Some situations require a feminine presence. Be it births, miscarriage, or any sensitive situation, we will make sure a woman medic is present, whether she gets there first or a few seconds later. Thankfully, there are so many medics both male and female so somehow it evens out very nicely.
Allowing women to serve as first responders in the frum community has been a point of fierce contention in some places. Did you, and do you still, face any obstacles in that regard in Israel?
Gitty: This is a very meaningful question. First, it is very important for me to say: There is nothing wrong with a man treating a woman. It’s perfect. What matters is, as always, speed and the highest level of care being given to the patient.
And yet – I speak now not as an EMT but as a woman and as someone who comes from a haredi home – it is very confusing for me how anyone can object to having a woman treat a woman, especially in our most vulnerable moments. Times of birth. Times of miscarriage (G-d forbid). Hot water spilling on the body. Fainting. So many private personal moments that women go through. In what universe is this immodest?
When presenting this to the leading rabbanim in the community, it was clear and unanimous: [Having women first responders] is by far the best solution. This is not a religious [issue], but rather a simple human interaction. When I go on calls and respond to emergencies of non-religious women, they will always prefer having a woman be the one to treat them.
This is not about tznius. It’s about giving us the dignity to make a choice of whom we prefer. To deny that choice is simply unfair. Are their halachic challenges? Sure!
I speak to women in communities around our small globe and [the opposition in this matter] is very upsetting for them and for me. I wish here and now to thank United Hatzalah for seeing the needs of everyone, men and women alike. This is a true service to the female community. And by the incredible overwhelming feedback we receive, I know we have done the most amazing thing.
I know some of your kids – and their spouses – have joined the family life-saving business. Tell me about that. Is there a successor in the pipeline for when the time comes for you both to – dare I say – retire?
Gitty: Retire? Is that a real word?
You introduced the “ambucycle” so first responders could get through trafficked roads and narrow streets to reach emergencies faster. What are some other innovations that our readers might not know about?
Eli: We have a lot of technological innovations happening all the time. The “minilance” is our second newest addition to the fleet of UH vehicles. The minilance is an electric car that is small and compact and can get through traffic and obstacles in major city centers. It is easy to park, runs on electricity, and carries two responders as well as medical equipment easily and quickly. We also have an EZRider which we have begun using in large-scale events.
As you know, local chapters of Hatzalah, not connected with United Hatzalah of Israel, exist in Jewish communities across the U.S. How are those organizations the same or different from UH, and what aspects of what you do in Israel could or should be adopted in the Diaspora?
Eli: Local Hatzalah chapters do great work. They really do. I applaud each and every one of their volunteers who gives of themselves and the time they could be spending with their families to go out and save the lives of others. This is holy work and each and every one of the volunteers has my respect and appreciation.
What differentiates us is that we include everybody – men, women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike – whereas the other Hatzalah groups are composed of Jewish men, in many communities ultra-Orthodox men only. Another thing that differentiates us is that we can respond anywhere in the country, whereas the other Hatzalahs can only respond in their neighborhood or city where they operate.
Imagine an EMT from Hatzalah of New York vacationing in Florida. If a person is drowning nearby, how would they know about it? How would they help? UH is unique because it is a national organization, with branches in other parts of the world as well. When a volunteer from Nahariya is on vacation in the Dead Sea or Eilat, or vice versa, they still get notified about emergencies and they still respond and can save lives.
We can also galvanize volunteers from quiet parts of the country to help out in a national emergency like what happened recently in Meron, Givat Zeev, and during the escalation of violence. This is something which I think the local Hatzalahs need to learn and need to do more training in – how to respond to mass-casualty incidents. It is something that UH has assisted many of the local Hatzalahs around the world in training their teams to do.
Eli, how do you manage being on the road, literally all over the globe, so much of the time? Do you ever stop and say, “I’m only one person – this is too much!”?
Eli: How can anyone say that? Is it too much to fly on a plane if a person’s life depended on it? What’s a plane flight compared to a person’s life? I need to do everything I can to save a life and thus I need to do everything I can to empower the volunteers who work with me and make up UH to save lives. There is no such thing as too much when it comes to this.
How does your travel itinerary now compare to pre-pandemic times?
Eli: It is certainly harder to travel. During Covid-19 in Israel it was nearly impossible to travel, but when there is a will G-d provides a way.
Gitty, what’s it like being married to possibly the hardest working, and probably the most frequent-traveling, person in the Jewish world? It seems like he is on the road more than he is home.
Gitty: When a couple gets married you bless them to be k’mo zug yonim, like a couple of doves. Why doves? Well, doves are never together in the nest. When Daddy dove comes home, Mommy dove leaves and vice versa. It’s a good recipe for shalom bayis.
Now that your kids are grown, are you able to join Eli more on his travels? Is that something you want to do?
Gitty: I do not travel with Eli, because when he travels he is at work full-time. But we try to disconnect once in a while from the world and just be our old selves – Eli and Gitty. And thank you to our kids who allow us to do this every once in a while!