Photo Credit: Courtesy
Scene of Hatzalah members on October 7, 8, 9.

October 7, Simchat Torah 5784, a tragic day that will live in infamy for the Jewish people, was also a day of incredible heroism. The first line of heroes were undoubtedly the civilians and elite IDF units who courageously battled Hamas terrorists. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. But there is a second line of heroes too, namely, the medics of United Hatzalah (UH) who ensured that hundreds of others were saved from making that sacrifice.

When my wife and I made aliyah seven years ago, our baby had a severe allergic reaction for the first time. United Hatzalah wasn’t on our radar screen. What was a traumatic taxi ride to the hospital could have instead been resolved within 90 seconds with a call to UH and the use of their innovative ambucycle. Thankfully, since 2016, UH’s ambucycle unit has grown by 40 percent and undergone a makeover, using the ubiquitous bright orange color that is now a regular part of Israel’s landscape.

Photo is from Oct. 7 – Oct. 9.

But UH’s story begins long before then, in 1989, when a teenage Eli Beer smuggled illegal electronic equipment into Israel to intercept Magen David Adom’s (MDA) radio signals. The story of UH’s growth is told in 90 Seconds (Artscroll/Shaar Press), Beer’s gripping memoir. The trailblazing tale of how a middle school dropout came to be CEO of the largest independent, non-governmental EMS service in the world, responsible for a $50 million annual budget, is, unsurprisingly, hard to put down. The memoir kept me up into the wee hours of the night multiple times, despite knowing I faced the unavoidable early alarm clocks which are my children.

“Lifesaving.” That is the answer most people would give if they had to sum up UH in one word. That ubiquitous bright orange color? I was sure it was marketing, part of a concerted effort over the past few years to build a global brand and donor base. Wrong. It was a safety measure recommended by an investigative committee after a volunteer’s white ambucycle slipped and was fatally hit by a car.

But a tour I received of UH’s Jerusalem headquarters led me to sum up UH with a different word: innovation. The GPS technology with which Uber revolutionized the world was first used by UH, before smartphones were even on the market. The ATV vehicle for emergencies in the narrow, cobblestone alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City was invented by UH. And the inspiration that gave Eli Beer the idea for the famous ambucycle came from witnessing a pizza delivery guy arrive quicker than a needed ambulance.

Innovation is what brought UH to be the primary lifesaving force in Israel on October 7 and 8. After its rescue missions after the massive earthquake in Turkey, UH decided that significantly more supplies were needed in order to be prepared for a similar such disaster in Israel, G-d forbid (more on that below).

Beer never dreamed that Artscroll would publish another full-length book less than a year after publishing 90 Seconds. No doubt he wishes the subject matter of Angels in Orange be nothing but a nightmare from which we could still wake up. But the barbaric reality that was October 7 happened and, to the best of my knowledge, Angels in Orange is the first book recounting its horrors – and its heroism. If 90 Seconds was the book I couldn’t put down, Angels in Orange is the book I could hardly pick up. But it is a critical book for every Jew to have. If you own a Holocaust memoir, you ought to own this too. The book deserves its own review, but this article endeavors to convey some of the perspectives not yet told. Moishe Paskesz, a native New Yorker, is one of the volunteers whose story is not told in Angels in Orange, though it could have been a chapter unto itself.


First-Hand Account

We spoke on the phone one evening while Paskesz was sooming home from work on his ambucycle. Ambucycles are only given to volunteers after they take a significant number of calls using their own vehicle. Unlike most UH volunteers, Paskesz was awake on Simchat Torah well before UH’s headquarters got its first call from the South. He was on call Friday night for UH’s Shabbat shift in his Jerusalem neighborhood, and 6:30 a.m. – when Hamas was invading Israel – found Paskesz someplace quite eerie in retrospect.

Moishe Paskesz on an ambucycle.

“The patient needed a certain medication, and where do you buy that on Shabbat morning? I went to East Jerusalem. I had no idea what was going on down south. I spent a good hour happily cruising the streets of East Jerusalem. Little did I know that if these people had any sympathy for their brethren down south, they could have just stabbed me or whatever. But what did I know?”

Paskesz went home to take a nap before hakafot, but “literally 30 seconds after my head hits the pillow, suddenly I hear a siren. I’m like, you gotta be kidding me.” The sirens kept coming, and soon the UH dispatcher called to all Jerusalem EMTs, saying there’s a war in the South.

“The last time such a call went out, in 2021,” Paskesz recalls, “it was a big nothing burger, so I didn’t give it much thought.” A couple of hours later, the dispatcher called for all ambulance drivers to go south, and when Paskesz got a personal phone call from Dr. Shlomo Gensler a short while after that, he realized something serious was going on. After a short conference with his wife and sweet 6-year-old son, who told Moishe to “tell the people with boo-boos I wish them refuah sheleima,” he changed into weekday clothes and left.

Coming to terms with the magnitude of that day’s horrors was a multi-stage fight against the denial his brain kept trying to activate.

“Waiting outside for Dr. Gensler to pick me up, a non-religious neighbor shouted from their porch, ‘Are you crazy?!’ I replied, ‘Why? What’s the matter?’ ‘Because Hamas invaded Israel and already took 30 hostages!’ the neighbor yelled back.

“I jump in the ambulance with Dr. Gensler and ask what’s going on. We’re interrupted by a call Dr. Gensler takes involving a teenage girl whose father had both of his hands blown off and was bleeding to death. He was advising her what to do, and suddenly she asks, ‘You’re coming to us, right?’ Dr. Gensler hemmed and hawed and she exclaimed, ‘You’re not coming to us?! You’re just wasting my time!!’ She burst into tears and hung up.

“I turned to Dr. Gensler and said, ‘Ok, but we’re on the way to save this guy, right?’ Dr. Gensler looked at me sadly and said, ‘No, this guy’s probably going to die. I said, ‘What do you mean?’”

Paskesz knew sometimes a patient couldn’t be helped because there wasn’t enough time. But here, they had the equipment, they had enough time, so what’s the problem? Dr. Gensler clued him in. “It’s a live-fire zone, active terrorists are on the loose, and we can’t reach these people holed up in their safe rooms.”

Paskesz couldn’t come to terms with the situation. “I just went numb. My brain couldn’t process this. I said, ‘So what are we going for?’ Dr. Gensler said, ‘We’re going to save the people we can help.’ At that moment, I felt like my Shabbos and Yom Tov effectively ended. There would be no Kiddush, no Havdalah, no dancing with the Torah. Just saving lives.”

They arrived at Heletz Junction, by then UH’s de facto field headquarters, and found ten ambulances lined up, waiting. “My next inkling that it was a bigger disaster than I thought was when the operations manager started consulting on how many victims can fit into an ambulance, and someone said, ‘Maybe even eight.’

“I said ‘Eight?! You’re gonna put eight patients into an ambulance??’ ‘No, no,’ came the response, ‘not patients. Dead bodies.’ This shook me even worse. I was like, ‘Why would you cram eight bodies into one ambulance when you have ten ambulances here?’ One of them shook his head sadly and said, ‘Oh Paskesz, it seems you don’t yet understand the magnitude of what we’re dealing with here.’ And then another guy says, ‘Yeah, my friend was in the trauma room at Beilinson Hospital and said you literally cannot see the floor. It’s just a river of blood.’

“Then Gitty Beer (Eli Beer’s wife) showed up. She’d been driving an ambulance further south and reported that it’s basically like navigating a giant slalom course on the road. ‘You look around, there’s a dead child in the right lane, a dead soldier to the left, a police officer on the side, another soldier in the middle.’

“As I’m taking all this in, I’m slowly, slowly realizing that like, ‘we ain’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.’ But the human brain has a tremendous capacity for disbelief. And I was still like, ‘You know, there has to be some kind of mistake.’”

Finally, they were sent out on a mission, but what Paskesz saw next is too gruesome to put in print. I (the author) had zero nightmares since October 7, despite involving myself in the war effort about as much as a civilian can, including a visit to ravaged Kibbutz Nir Oz. That is, until the night I interviewed Paskesz. What I heard next went somewhere deep in my psyche, and my sleep that night was punctuated by terrifying nightmares.


Coordinating with the IDF

The rest of Paskesz’s story (excluding the severely gruesome part) is told through the lens of his colleague, Dr. Gensler, in chapter 16 of Angels in Orange. But perhaps most noteworthy is that Paskesz went south at all. EMT protocol is safety first, and paramedics are generally meant to wait until the danger passes before providing treatment. Additionally, if a medic gets injured, it’s a double casualty – one more injured, and one less who can treat the injured. MDA adhered to this protocol and forbade their medics from traveling to areas considered under fire. United Hatzalah’s COO, Dovie Maisel, knowing full well the regular protocol, made the excruciatingly difficult decision to allow UH medics to operate under fire. It was risky, but no doubt saved hundreds of lives.

For a time, UH was viewed as a ragtag group of well-intentioned but disruptive EMTs who circumvented government protocol. To understand more about how UH’s relationship with the IDF and government agencies informed their response on October 7, I spoke with Maisel. For decades, he told me, UH coordinated training exercises with various regional councils and municipalities. In 2017, though, UH was finally recognized by the Ministry of Public Security as an official emergency service. This meant they are not just a nice, helpful organization but a critical part of the response to a national disaster. It also required the police to coordinate with UH in all drills and training exercises. So when October 7 hit, UH volunteers were prepared. In the Gaza border kibbutzim, they worked directly with the IDF and in the Southern periphery towns, with the police. Both the police and IDF commended them for their professionalism under fire.

For an organization that prides itself on reaching any emergency in under 90 seconds, it is no surprise that efficiency is their calling card. As the extreme magnitude of the injured dawned on the IDF, they turned to UH for medical supplies. Maisel presumes that the IDF had supplies but couldn’t source them quickly enough to where they were needed. UH, however, had its millions of dollars of equipment organized and easily accessible. Within 48 hours, UH’s warehouse was emptied.

A few days later, the IDF asked to borrow UH ambulances, which they did until late February. “Ask” is a nice word, because UH is required to comply as an official national emergency service. Does the government or IDF provide any compensation for using UH’s resources, I wonder? “Nope, nothing,” is Maisel’s unequivocal answer. Thus, UH’s budget doubled from $50 million to $100 million in 48 hours.


Grounding the Helicopters

But while MDA’s decision not to send their medics and ambulances to the South had sound logic to it, a different bureaucratic feud on October 7 was borderline murderous and has no reasonable excuse.

In December, while catching up with a family friend at a wedding, it came up that Paskesz’s son had been a part of UH’s helicopter unit on Simchat Torah. Our conversation ended when he commented bitterly, “What idiots they [Ministry of Health] are.”

Photo is from Oct. 7 – Oct. 9.

I hadn’t known UH had a helicopter unit, and for good reason. It was established less than a year prior, and not a moment too soon. On October 7/8, both UH helicopters were in continuous use, evacuating the most grievously wounded IDF commandos to operating rooms in hospitals around the country (already by Simchat Torah morning, the surgical teams in southern hospitals were worked beyond capacity). Until they weren’t.

Late Sunday morning, October 8, a UH helicopter with two flight paramedics flew to Beer Sheba’s Soroka Hospital to transport an officer from Sayeret Matkal for emergency surgery in Meir Hospital in central Israel. Upon landing at Soroka, though, a representative from the Ministry of Health informed them that they didn’t have the proper permits.

The bitterness was understandably still evident in all of the UH medics I spoke to about this, even months later. As Yoni Rosenfeld noted, “You know how so many soldiers had arms or legs amputated? For some, that was completely avoidable.” A primary reason for amputations during those two days was because of tourniquets being applied for too long. The tourniquets are life-saving, but if left on too long, the limb must be amputated.

“Grounding our helicopters meant that dozens of soldiers only got operated on after it was too late to save their limbs.” Since then, the Supreme Court has provisionally ruled in UH’s favor, though the case is still pending.

The organization’s name, United Hatzalah, is no coincidence. At a time when Israel holds out hope for our precious unity to hold, UH is doing the hard work to build the foundations of unity. Its volunteers are 45 percent secular, 43 percent charedi/religious, and 12 percent Arab/non-Jewish. But it’s not just about the numbers. It’s about what UH does with the numbers. It’s about relationships. Mutual respect. Seeing the tzelem Elokim before race, ideology or religion. As the head of UH’s Arabic volunteers, Christian Arab Ala Samara told me, “I volunteered with MDA for many years, but for me, UH is more. UH is family.”

I have nothing but praise for Angels in Orange. But surely another signpost of Am Yisrael’s unity – and possibly a great step toward bringing Mashiachwould be for Artscroll to release a book chronicling the heroism during this war – a book about the angels in olive green.


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Rabbi Chaim Goldberg has semicha from RIETS and a graduate degree in child clinical psychology from Hebrew University. Aside from practicing psychology and teaching Torah at various yeshivot/seminaries, he runs Mussar Links, a non-profit dedicated to publishing the Torah writings of Rabbi Hillel Goldberg.