Thursday, November 19, 2015

Inside Brooklyn’s Orthodox Ambulance Corps 

Two weeks ago, a volunteer for Hatzalah, the ambulance service found in some Jewish communities, was stabbed in the back while he was walking down the street in Crown Heights. The victim called in his own injury and was taken to the hospital in his own ambulance. The incident is under investigation, so it's unclear what prompted the attack. Still, the NYPD is treating it as a hate crime, possibly prompted by the victim's religion. While we wait for answers, it seems helpful to try to understand the occasionally complicated role that Hatzalah plays in the neighborhood.
Where did Hatzalah come from, anyway?
Some history: Hatzalah started in Williamsburg in 1965, after a prominent member of the Hasidic Jewish community had a heart attack and died while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. As a response, a group of Hasidic men decided to start their own volunteer-run ambulance service, which they named Hatzalah (alternatively spelled Hatzolah)—Hebrew for "rescue" or "relief." Since the ambulances were all located in one small geographic area, they could react quickly to emergencies.
Soon, Hasidic communities in other neighborhoods—like Crown Heights and Borough Park—frustrated by slow responses to 911 calls, began to copy the model. It has since spread to Los Angeles, Switzerland, Mexico, Australia, and Israel—in other words, anywhere that there's a large Orthodox Jewish population.
Today, the average response time to 911 calls in New York has improved significantly—FDNY data shows a drop from eleven minutes and four seconds in 1988 to just under seven minutes in 2014. Still, Chevra Hatzalah, the umbrella organization for all the New York-area ambulances, comes out ahead, with an average that ranges from between two and half to four minutes. The organization claims to have the fastest response times in the world, though that hasn't been definitively tested.
Anecdotally, "you call and they're right there, almost as soon as you've hung up the phone," said Hannah, a mother of three in Crown Heights' Chabad Lubavitch community (who asked not to use her last name). The fact that the EMTs speak Yiddish, and are sensitive to their patients' religious beliefs, is an added benefit.
Who is it for and what does it cost?
In the secular community, two things about Hatzalah generally come as a surprise: that it costs nothing, and that its mission is to serve everyone, Jewish or not.
Since Hatzalah volunteers work for free and community donations cover the cost of medical equipment, the ambulance is free. "That's especially important in a community like this where there's a huge income gap," said J. E. Reich, who identifies with Conservative Judaism and lives in Crown Heights.
Despite the obvious wealth on display on President Street, which is lined with single-family brick mansions, many other members of the Chabad Lubavitch community struggle to get by, especially since their faith encourages them to have as many children as possible. Considering that a ride to the hospital can mean a bill for thousands of dollars, Reich believes that the choice to call Hatzalah instead of 911 isn't a rejection of the secular world so much as a carefully considered economic calculation.

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