Ever since he was 16, Eli Beer has devoted his life to saving lives. The organization he founded – United Hatzalah of Israel – began with 15 volunteers. Today it boasts 4,000 EMTs, paramedics, and doctors who volunteer 24/7, 365 days a year, across the entire State of Israel. Utilizing the latest in technology – as seen in its innovative ambucycles and sophisticated command center in Jerusalem – United Hatzalah responds to over 800 emergency calls daily. Its first responders now train emergency response teams in countries around the world.
Beer's dedication to saving lives has earned him numerous awards, including the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders in Davos, the Presidential Award for Volunteerism in Israel, and the IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East.
The Jewish Press: What inspired you to found United Hatzalah?
Beer: I started my life-saving career as a volunteer with Magen David Adom. I volunteered on an ambulance in Yerushalayim and was sure I would save lives. But I realized, after a year and a half, that I never got to save anyone. Every time there was a real emergency, it took us too long to get to the person. By the time we arrived, because of the traffic and distance, it was always too late.
When I was 16, I was on an ambulance going to an emergency call for a seven-year-old boy choking on a hotdog. We were the only ambulance available in Yerushalayim and it took us 21 minutes to get there. We started CPR on the child while a doctor who lived nearby saw the ambulance and ran in to help. He checked the little boy and said, "Bring a sheet to cover him." There was nothing to do.
It would have been so simple to save him. The doctor lived only two blocks away, but no one called him. That's when I realized that every single day people die waiting for an ambulance. People die waiting for help. And I told myself that I would not let more people die this way. That's when I decided to create Hatzalah in Israel.
Were you familiar with Chevra Hatzalah, which existed in America at the time?
No. There was no Internet then, and I didn't know of or have any connection to Hatzalah in America. I just thought about starting something small in my community and calling it Hatzalah, which is the Hebrew word for "save." We started with 15 volunteers and the idea to respond to emergency calls.
Since we had no emergency number, I suggested going to Magen David Adom and offering to share emergency calls. We went to their union, but they adamantly refused. They threw us out of the room.
But I was determined not to play with people's lives; as the Torah teaches, "Lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa." So, I used the technique invented in Israel called chutzpah and bought police scanners to get their emergency calls without their permission. That's how we started. Since then, we have saved the lives of almost three million people.
You took a mitzvah and built an empire out of it. Was there a personal motivation that prompted you to become involved in this particular mitzvah?
Yes. When I was six years old, there was a terrible bomb attack on a bus in my community. I was nearby when the number 12 bus in Bayit Vegan blew up. It is something I will never forget. And it pushed me towards this mitzvah of hatzalat nefashot.
Later, I responded to the first emergency call I heard over the police scanner. A 70-year-old man was hit by a car near my father's book shop. I responded immediately and ran there without any medical equipment. The man was on the floor, unconscious and bleeding terribly from his neck. I knew that he would die unless I stopped the bleeding. So I took off the yarmulke from my head, folded it, and used it as a tourniquet. Around 25 minutes later, an ambulance came and took him to the hospital.
Two days later, I got a phone call from the man's son, thanking me for saving his father's life and asking me to visit him. At that moment I started crying; it was the best moment of my life. When I visited him in the hospital, the doctor acknowledged that I saved his life. And when the man gave me a hug, I saw that he had a number on his arm. That changed my life forever. I realized how simple it was to save a life.
I visited the impressive United Hatzalah building in Jerusalem and was struck by the broad spectrum of volunteers working there – men, women, Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox. Have any conflicts ever arisen from such a politically- and culturally-diverse staff?
The only reason I built this organization was to save lives. The way to achieve that is through a network of volunteers. In order to service all areas, we need to have volunteers from all areas. I broke through many preconceived notions to get the broadest spectrum in one place – Druze, Christians, Muslims, Chassidim, Litvaks, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Modern Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox.
This is the only organization in Israel where you will find something this revolutionary. Everyone likes and respects each other because we share a common goal. When it comes to saving lives, I want to save lives with Mohammed because, if I save his life, Mohammed saves my life. And we will grow to respect each other more.
Do you see this as valuable Israeli PR leading to broader Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel?
It's an incredible PR opportunity. I was recently a speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos. People loved the idea of saving lives and also the idea of including non-Jews. The biggest mitzvah of the Torah is to save lives. It makes a huge Kiddush Hashem.
We didn't build this organization for coexistence; we built it as a practical way to save lives. But other things happened because of it. The relationship went beyond helping each other and the tragedies we experience.
Last year, a Jewish volunteer was killed on the way to an emergency. Christian and Muslim Hatzalah volunteers came to his funeral and contributed to the fund we established to help his family. They gave money because they realized that it benefits them as well. While it looks like we may never have peace in Israel, organizations like Hatzalah prove that we have a chance of living next to each other without a war.
Female medics now make up a sizeable portion of United Hatzalah. How difficult was it, within the ultra-Orthodox enclave of some parts of Israel, to get approval for them to join your organization?
It was very difficult. Everything we do is with 100 percent rabbinic halachic haskamos. We have rabbanim who help us throughout the whole organization. We realized the need and started a women's division in very Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel. In some of these neighborhoods, like Bnei Brak, we are very careful about tznius.
The idea is that women help women. These women go through the same rigorous training as men, and they take their training even more seriously than men. Last month the women's division delivered 11 babies.
You recently developed a psycho-trauma unit within United Hatzalah, consisting of mental health professional volunteers. What impact do you hope to achieve with it?
I think this is a revolutionary idea that actually saves lives. We devised a method to deal with trauma in the first hour or two that people experience it. It was the brainchild of Miriam Ballin, who was also the very first female medic for United Hatzalah of Yerushalayim.
Every time there is a catastrophe, whether it's a terror attack or a fire, people are exposed to it. Then they put aside the accompanying emotional issues without dealing with it. They can develop post-traumatic stress from what they saw, which leads to terrible consequences down the road. This interventional method can save them from therapy and medication. And Hatzalah is there anyways, so we can easily send trained volunteers to treat the family and witnesses.
You have personally received many awards for your work. Which are you most proud of?
The awards I like more than anything else are the letters I get from those who were saved through Hatzalah. I get many letters every day. Though I've sat next to presidents and royalty, nothing compares to these letters.
I once got a letter from a six-year-old girl who choked on a balloon at school and was saved by a Hatzalah volunteer. She was an only child to parents who waited 10 years to have a child. I got the most beautiful letter from her. That's better than winning the Nobel Prize.
What accomplishment of United Hatzalah do you value most?
Our biggest accomplishment is having big, bureaucratic organizations try to copy our model. There are organizations and unions who have copied our ambucycles. Some people say they're imitating us, but I'm proud of the fact that we did our job so well that organizations that fiercely opposed us now finally recognize our better ideas.
What are your greatest goals and challenges going forward?
My goal is a 90-second response everywhere in Israel. I won't rest until that happens. When I started, we had 15 volunteers and could only respond in our neighborhood. We now have over 4,000 volunteers. While the response time in some places is under 90 seconds, the average response time countrywide is now 1-3 minutes.
Our challenges center on growing and maintaining our volunteer base. Volunteers get tired, and we always need to recruit new ones. We also have to recruit new volunteers for new neighborhoods. In some areas we don't have enough volunteers – for example, in the country's periphery, the Negev and the Golan.
There's also the huge financial burden. Without fundraising, Hatzalah would never exist. I actually love raising money, because I love to tell people what I do and ask them to be a partner. When someone donates to Hatzalah, he automatically becomes a partner in what I believe in. I fought for this organization for 28 years, and every time someone joins our efforts it's the greatest feeling in the world.