Photo Credit: Rabbi Yechiel Kalish
Hatzalah volunteers comprising members of Team 5.

Rabbi Yechiel Kalish, CEO of Chevra Hatzalah, logged on to a Zoom meeting on October 10, three days after Hamas invaded southern Israel, massacred 1,200 Israelis, and took 240 civilian captives. The purpose of the Zoom was so that the executive boards of Chevra Hatzalah and Israel’s Magen David Adom could meet to discuss if there was any way Hatzalah could assist in MDA’s efforts to stem the tide of the crisis.

As it turns out, there was. MDA asked if Hatzalah could spare any emergency medical personnel. So many of MDA’s first responders had been called up for miluim, the army reserves, that ambulance corps in southern Israel found themselves short-staffed.

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Rabbi Kalish was happy to do what he could to help. Indeed, he had offered Hatzalah’s services to MDA the previous day on a call just as Simchas Torah in the U.S. was over. MDA, still taking stock of the attack’s fallout, did not yet feel a need for additional manpower. They instead requested a shipment of 500 Basic Life Services, or BLS, bags. Rabbi Kalish agreed and quickly organized a shipment.

But by the 10th, the reality on the ground had shifted and there was a dire need for first responders to backfill Israel’s manpower shortage. Hatzalah leapt into action, putting out a call for volunteers to fly to a war zone to assist.

But first, Rabbi Kalish traveled to Boro Park. He posed the following halachic question to the Va’ad Harabbanim: does the organization have the right to send personnel into harm’s way? The Va’ad declined to rule on the matter. As one rabbi put it, how can I weigh in on something like this, sitting as I am in the safety of Boro Park?

Rabbi Yechiel Kalish with Rav Moshe Shternbuch.

So Rabbi Kalish flew to Israel to ask the same question of Rav Moshe Shternbuch and Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch. Both were very supportive of the mission. It is allowed, they opined, so long as everyone who went volunteered to do so and felt no pressure to go – Hatzalah may facilitate the mission for its members, but not actively send them into harm’s way.

There was no shortage of volunteers. In fact, so eager were the Hatzalah guys to do their part for the war effort that hundreds of paramedics applied for the 57 available slots. The volunteers, selected for their experience, specific skill-sets, and cool-headedness in a crisis, were divided into five Hatzalah Emergency Ambulance Response Teams, or H.E.A.R.T teams. Hatzalah arranged for the teams to travel to Israel for a week at a time to work daily 16-hour shifts.

Josh Hartman, president and co-founder of Bergen Hatzalah and Advanced Life Support Supervisor for multiple Hatzalah neighborhoods, was tasked with staffing and leading H.E.A.R.T. Team Four. Hartman was well-suited to the task. Since 2017 or so, Hartman had made it a habit to volunteer with MDA in Israel several times a year. As a result, he was familiar with their protocols and how they differed from Hatzalah’s in America. In fact, Hartman was in Israel on October 7 visiting his daughter in seminary. He had helped man an MDA ambulance the previous Thursday night.

Hartman returned to Israel on November 5 with his team of approximately a dozen paramedics. They were stationed in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Kiryat Gat, four communities hard-hit by the Hamas attack. The men immediately went to work covering for the MDA personnel at the front and assisting with combat casualties airlifted from Gaza. The days were long and tiring, but meaningful.

“The camaraderie with the MDA staff was amazing,” Hartman recalled. “We have a shared passion for the work and engaged in a rapid exchange of knowledge and best practices.”

The mission members also found that their assistance extended beyond the physical task of providing emergency medical services. They discovered that the Israeli EMS personnel felt comfortable sharing their harrowing wartime experiences with fellow first responders. “We found that one of the ways we were able to contribute was by giving chizuk to the MDA staff.”

The Hatzalah volunteers were struck by the warm welcome they received upon their arrival. “The people greeting the teams at the airport broke down in tears – they were so appreciative of these guys who came from America to help,” said Rabbi Kalish. “The communities, too, really welcomed the volunteers into their homes.”

On the ground, the Hatzalah members were deeply gratified by the achdus they saw on display. One member recalled his Friday night seudah that started with four or five guys. By the end of the meal, 50 people had joined for food and zemiroscharedi to chiloni, old divisions fell away.

The fifth and final H.E.A.R.T. team has since returned from Israel. MDA has said that it now has its personnel crisis under control and no longer need American volunteers.

To a man, the Hatzalah volunteers who partook in the mission to Israel can feel fulfilled in the knowledge that they contributed to Israeli society in the way only they could. In Hartman’s words, “It was a universally meaningful experience.”

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