Orthodox rabbis take a side in Bergen’s ambulance war

Orthodox rabbis take a side in Bergen’s ambulance war

18 sign letter defending Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps from Hatzalah arrival

Bergen Hatzalah and the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps are vying for Teaneck’s emergency calls.
Bergen Hatzalah and the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps are vying for Teaneck’s emergency calls.

Eighteen rabbis of Teaneck and Bergenfield Orthodox synagogues have pushed back at an effort by Bergen Hatzalah Emergency Medical Services to replace the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps as  municipality’s provider of emergency medical services.

On August 1, Steven Kirschner of Teaneck, president of Bergen Hatzalah, sent a letter to Teaneck township officials accusing TVAC of violating state law by failing to file its incident reports with the state Department of Health properly.

“I implore the Township to identify an EMS agency that is compliant with State law to provide care to those who call Teaneck police for their medical emergencies,” Mr. Kirschner wrote.

Three days later, the rabbis – who represent almost all of Teaneck and Bergenfield’s Orthodox shuls — sent their letter to the same township officials, condemning the Hatzalah letter as “entirely objectionable.”

“It is our understanding that the issue in question is one which has no bearing on patient care, and, in no way, shape, or form, justifies the withdrawal of support from our local ambulance corps, which have proudly served our township for eight decades,” the rabbis wrote. “Its author and the organization he represents do not speak for us as faith leaders within the Orthodox Jewish community, nor for our constituents, in this or other letters which he has been circulating.

“On the contrary, we proudly and wholeheartedly support Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps, as well as Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps,” they wrote.

On one level, this reflects a turf war between an established organization and an upstart. Bergen Hatzalah launched in early 2021.

But it also reflects two competing visions of Orthodox Judaism.

For the modern Orthodox Jews of Teaneck and adjoining Bergenfield, civic participation alongside their non-Jewish neighbors is a point of pride, and an opportunity for kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name.

Membership in Hatzalah, by contrast, is limited to Orthodox Jewish men — something that Orthodox Jewish women in Teaneck have noted acidly as the conflict surfaced on social media. Hatzalah’s policies reflect its origins in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where it was founded by Satmar chasidim.

Both groups will attend to anyone who calls, no matter that person’s religion or ethnicity.

Which is not to say that Bergen Hatzalah is led by chasidim. Its core includes modern Orthodox Englewood residents who had been on call with Hatzalah as volunteer emergency technicians in Manhattan during their working hours — and then, when covid hit and they longer commuted, instead working from home, became disappointed with what they saw as the quality of service of Englewood’s volunteer ambulance corps.

Advocates for the Teaneck ambulance corps point out that their rival is itself in apparent violation of New Jersey law. In July, Hatzalah sent out an email with the subject line “When should you call Hatzalah?” that included Teaneck and Bergenfield among the municipalities it served. It also included the Hatzalah hotline number — an apparent violation of state law, which says that an ambulance service “shall not advertise any telephone number for emergency response” other than 911.

Such violations would be investigated by the state Department of Health, which “does not comment on potential or pending investigations,” Nancy Kearney, deputy director of the department’s office of communications, said in an email.

From 1965, when it was founded in Brooklyn, Hatzalah has used its own phone number, which is publicized heavily in the Orthodox Jewish community. The Teaneck and Bergenfield ambulance corps, on the other hand, are summoned by their town’s 911 dispatcher.

As for the Teaneck ambulance corps’ alleged violation of state regulations, one person close to the corps, speaking on condition of anonymity since the matter is in litigation, said that the corps has been sending the data to the state, but not in the format the state wants. “We’re in talks with the state on coming to an agreement,” the source said.

On the record, neither side wanted to  discuss the dispute.

“There are some small people who get their kicks out of politics,” one Hatzalah supporter said dismissively, explaining why he would not address the issue. Hatzalah leadership did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

“Hatzalah as an organization provides great services to the communities that need their help,” Eric Orgen said. Mr. Orgen is president of TVAC; his wife, Karen Orgen, serves on the Teaneck township council.

That said, Mr. Orgen added that “TVAC is a tremendous kiddush Hashem.”  He noted that in 2021, “Christmas was on Shabbat. I drove the ambulance all day. I didn’t feel it necessary on one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar to make non-Jews ride on the ambulance.”

Orthodox Jews are allowed to ride on an ambulance on Shabbat — whether it’s dispatched by TVAC, Hatzalah, or any other EMS service —since their work literally is a matter of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.

“We have a member who rides every Shabbos with a yarmulke,” Mr. Orgen said. “He walks down there. It’s a tremendous kiddush Hashem and truly serves the entire community.”

Meanwhile, one TVAC advocate found support for resisting the incursion of a rival ambulance corps in the unlikely person of Rabbi Yechiel Kaufman, a Boro Park rabbi who testified in 2019 at a hearing of the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City.

“Having multiple volunteer EMS services operating in and servicing the same community will cause confusion as to whom to call in an emergency, thereby causing delays in providing emergency care and potentially causing catastrophe,” Rabbi Kaufman said. He added that he was reflecting the consensus of his community’s rabbis in opposing an application by Ezras Nashim, a corps of chasidic female EMT volunteers, who were trying to obtain an ambulance license.

Despite Rabbi Kaufman’s testimony, Ezras Nashim succeeded in getting its ambulance license in 2020.

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