Hatzalah to the rescue?
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Hatzalah to the rescue?

Local chapter of Orthodox emergency service draws opposition

Standing, from left, in the mayor’s house last month, Dr. Josef Schenker, Dr. David Kestenbaum, Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, and Joshua Hartman hope to join Bergen Hatzalah when it is launched.
Standing, from left, in the mayor’s house last month, Dr. Josef Schenker, Dr. David Kestenbaum, Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, and Joshua Hartman hope to join Bergen Hatzalah when it is launched.

Englewood’s mayor and its Orthodox rabbis have given their approval for a local branch of Hatzalah, the first response medical rescue organization that launched in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1965.

The new branch hopes to launch later this year as Bergen Hatzalah. First it has to incorporate, and to raise money for communication and other equipment — as well as to recruit an initial group of at least 15 volunteer on-call responders who already have emergency medical training.

Joshua Hartman, a long-time Englewood resident with even longer experience with Hatzalah in Manhattan, is heading the effort.

This comes as the Englewood Volunteer Ambulance Corp, established in 1954, has reduced its services to nighttime coverage; during the day, ambulances from Englewood Health answers 911 calls.

But the proposal has been criticized by leaders of the neighboring Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which responds to 911 calls in Teaneck. The Teaneck volunteers argue that there is no need to replace the model of a community-wide ambulance company with strong Orthodox participation with one that accepts only Orthodox men as volunteers. Orthodox Teaneckers now make up “more than 50 percent” of the Teaneck group’s volunteers, according to Kevie Feit, a past president and now spokesman for TVAC. The Teaneck group also fears that Bergen Hatzalah, which hopes to expand beyond Englewood, will compete with it for volunteers and donations.

While the existing town ambulance groups receive calls from their local 911 dispatcher, Hatzalah in New York has long publicized its own emergency number.

“Hatzalah is one of the shining lights in the Jewish community, and now is the time to bring it to Englewood,” Michael Wildes, the city’s mayor, said. “We need more hands on deck.” He said that Hatzalah will be “an adjunct” to the Englewood Volunteer Ambulance Corps. “We’re not competing,” he said.

Mr. Hartman and Mr. Wildes both are longtime Hatzalah volunteers. They emphasized the structural difference between Hatzalah and the existing volunteer ambulance organizations.

“We’re providing a different service,” Mr. Hartman said. The existing volunteer ambulance services “provide ambulance transportation and emergency medical service. We provide a first response service. We’re not intending to have an ambulance. Our goal is to arrive at a patient as quickly as possible and stabilize them until the ambulance can come on the scene. The goal is to stop the clock. We’re not changing the infrastructure of whatever ambulance comes.”

At the ambulance corps, the volunteers serve shifts at the group’s office, waiting for calls to come in from the 911 dispatcher. By contrast, Hatzalah volunteers go about their business — or sleep in their beds — waiting for the call to come in as the dispatcher summons the two on-call volunteers closest to the incident as well as a separate ambulance.

“I’ve done calls in the law school where I teach,” Mr. Wildes said.

Similarly, he said, “people who live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan but work in Englewood” can be on call for Englewood’s Hatzalah. “It’s all about having everything you need in one stop and going directly to care for the patient.”

Why the push to start a Hatzalah chapter now?

“It’s really a confluence of factors,” Mr. Hartman said. “Englewood as a city and as a Jewish community has grown significantly over the past multiple years. I’d say exponentially over the past year plus, with influxes of new community members from all around the tristate area, specifically from areas currently served by Hatzalah.

“There have been multiple occasions where the New York Hatzalah number has been called from Englewood. I get called a few times a week. There’s a desire and a need.”

Additionally, Mr. Wildes said, “There was an incident a few months ago where my own wife had passed out. As a 30-year-veteran of Hatzalah, I called Josh Hartman. He came in moments. It took 25 minutes for the ambulance to come from the system, which is unacceptable.”

Mr. Hartman joined Hatzalah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1996; he has lived in Englewood for 20 years.

“I’ve always had the bug,” he said. “My first job out of high school I was a lifeguard. Then I became an EMT” — an Emergency Medical Technician — “and then I became a paramedic.” He has a full-time job in medical education but continues to work one day a week as a paid paramedic with Englewood Health.

“Josh’s reputation and his work is just extraordinary,” Mr. Wildes said. “The notion of tikkun olam is his middle name. I would not be part of this had Josh not headed this up. The rabbis who have all come out to support this understand the example and good deed this means for the entire community of Englewood.”

Mr. Wildes said that while the group is starting in Englewood, “we hope to expand for multiple municipalities.” Accordingly, the group is call itself Bergen Hatzalah.

The Orthodox rabbis who signed the letter supporting the Hatzalah project are Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah, Menachem Genack of Shomrei Emunah, Zev Reichman of East Hill Synagogue, and Akiva Block of Kehilat Kesher.

Their letter noted Mr. Hartman’s role in teaching CPR and first aid to the community, and in developing Ahavath Torah’s medical protocols.

The rabbis said that they “will work closely alongside Hatzalah in forming their team and the halachic protocols which will assist them in responding to calls on Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as dealing with any issues where rabbinic guidance may inform their operations.”

On a key personnel matter, however, guidance for the Englewood Hatzalah will come not from the city’s Orthodox rabbis, who affiliate with Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union, but with the charedi leadership of Hatzalah.

That means only Orthodox men are eligible to volunteer. (This Hatzalah policy was the backstory for the struggle to form a women’s chasidic ambulance corps, as documented in the recent film “93Queen.”)

“It’s not something we’re choosing,” Mr. Hartman said. “We abide by the Vaad Harabonim of Hatzalah,” their rabbinical council. That’s one of the conditions of using their name.

“It’s just like the Catholic medical centers and other communities have their own protocols,” Mr. Wildes said. “When it comes to service, it will be for any patient in Englewood.”

But Mr. Feit, of the Teaneck ambulance corps, said that his group believes a Hatzalah chapter “is really not necessary.

“This is not to detract from what Hatzalah does. They may be able to get to a scene faster in New York City or other places. In Teaneck, our ambulances can get to a scene in about four minutes. It’s very difficult to do it faster.”

The Teaneck ambulance corps answers more than 4,000 calls a year. “I think we’re the busiest volunteer squad in Bergen County,” Mr. Feit said. “It’s a point of pride. Some of the towns have had to resort to the hospital ambulances. It’s nice to know that the person coming to help you is your neighbor who is familiar with the town.”

Mr. Feit noted that in 2017, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County had issued a letter saying they did not support a Hatzalah locally.

“If you’re persistent enough, you try again,” he said.

“We’re concerned about pulling from the same potential pool of volunteers,” he added. “Volunteer ambulance corps have difficulty recruiting and retaining members. Start up another volunteer squad that’s going to be competing for the same resources is unnecessary. We’re very worried about fundraising efforts. We’ll be chasing the same dollars from the same people.

“The Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps — and I know the same goes for Bergenfield and Englewood — has been a melting pot of the local communities. Everybody who is there works together. That’s something I was always proud of. We in the Jewish community are helping the general community.

“I think having an exclusive ambulance sends the wrong message to people. They’ll respond to everybody who calls, but who is going to call? Where are they advertising, and who knows about them? So it’s clearly going to come just from the Jewish community.

“We met with some of the people who are interested in starting a local Hatzalah. We made offers to try to include them in TVAC. We were willing to make changes to the membership structure and changes in how we dispatch calls. The group was not interested. They wanted to do things only under the Hatzalah umbrella.”

Mr. Feit said that the distinction Hatzalah is making between first responders and ambulance crews is “absolutely not correct. We respond right away. Hatzalah volunteers are trained the same as TVAC. They’re not doing anything different than we would be doing.

“People think the volunteers are there when you cut your finger, but if there’s a car accident a real ambulance shows up. That’s not the case. TVAC responds to all the same calls. I’ve been on shootings and stabbings and car accidents and any and all types of medical trauma.”

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