The Man Behind United Hatzalah, Saving Lives With Rapid Response Times

February 20, 2019
Eli Beer

Eli Beer was just 7 years old when a bus exploded in front of him as he was walking home from school in Jerusalem. A wounded man pleaded with Beer to help him. Frightened and unable to help, Beer ran off. He tried to forget what he had seen but couldn’t. 

The incident motivated Beer, now 45, to dedicate his life to saving others. When he turned 15, he became a licensed emergency medical technician (EMT) and volunteered with an ambulance crew. But when it took him 21 minutes to cross Jerusalem in heavy traffic to reach a choking 7-year-old, a delay that resulted in the boy’s death, Beer decided to take matters into his own hands. 

Founded by Beer in 1992, United Hatzalah (the Hebrew word for “rescue”) is a nonprofit organization that runs solely on donations and is committed to saving lives in Israel and around the world with lightning response times. Hatzalah-trained volunteer EMTs use “ambucycles” — ambulances on motorcycles — to dodge traffic and provide lifesaving services free of charge. 

Today, the organization has grown to more than 5,000 volunteer medical responders treating over 300,000 people per year. It operates in 21 countries across Europe, Australia, South America and North America, and it’s coming to Africa soon. 

Ahead of United Hatzalah’s inaugural Los Angeles gala on Feb. 28, Beer spoke with the Journal about the organization and his plans to eventually bring operations to L.A. 

Jewish Journal: Why were you so confident this idea would work? 

Eli Beer: You could be the greatest ambulance and EMT crew in the world, but if you don’t get there in time, none of it matters. I never thought about a 90-second response time to everywhere in Israel as my goal. Initially, I thought about my neighborhood. About 4,000 live there, so I thought if I have 15 people responding to emergencies, that would be enough. Eventually, I thought we’d have to expand and form a network of volunteers that would be dispersed everywhere in Israel. 

JJ: Hatzalah is known for pioneering location-based GPS technology. How did that start? 

EB: The first time I saved someone’s life, when Hatzalah was just getting started, I got there in 30 seconds. I heard the emergency call from police scanners. I ran because it was a block away. We had to break into this field using chutzpah. Organizations like Magen David Adom (the Israeli version of the Red Cross) wouldn’t dispatch calls to us, even in my neighborhood, even though we were closer. But with police scanners, we could get there with no problem. 

“Whether or not you’re a Zionist, which side of the conflict you’re on, that isn’t a part of [United Hatzalah]. Anyone who wants to be part of this system that puts life before anything else can join.”

JJ: And you obviously upgraded from police scanners. 

EB: Uber, basically, unintentionally copied our model. The whole intention is not giving rides for free, but saving lives for free. Our app, which was developed before Uber and Lyft, notifies the closest 10 volunteers using 250 algorithms. 

JJ: I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the motorcycles. 

EB: That’s right. We’re the ones who invented the two-wheel “ambucycles.” It has everything an ambulance has, apart from the bed, except it’s on two wheels and can skip all the traffic, increasing response time. Technically, I’m the first one in the world who drove one. 

JJ: Who are your volunteers? 

EB: They are incredible people. Most of them come from low-income jobs or communities and they just want to make a big difference. They come from religious backgrounds, ultra-religious backgrounds and secular backgrounds. They’re Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Jews. 

JJ: You’ve established Hatzalah outposts all over the world. What goes into starting Hatzalah in a new territory? 

EB: The one who wants to start it has to be totally meshugge. It needs to be someone who’s willing to put a regular life aside for this mission. Once they have the right leadership in place, we work with the group. We bring them to Israel and get them set up with everything they need. Then they can go back to their country and start recruiting people, getting the right equipment, working with 9-1-1 dispatchers.

JJ: Will Hatzalah be coming to Los Angeles? 

EB: We’re slowly starting to come to the United States. Right now, we’re in Jersey City. We originally started there four years ago, mainly serving the Jewish community. There’s a Hatzalah crew in Los Angeles but they’re technically not affiliated with us. They’re mainly serving the Pico-Robertson and La Brea-area Jewish communities. We’re friends with them, though. They visit us in Israel and we visit them. Soon, though, our plan is to expand to New York, Los Angeles and other places in the States. 

JJ: Why is Hatzalah holding a gala in Los Angeles at the end of this month? 

EB: We want more support and more awareness for the mission. Jay Leno is one of our biggest supporters. He loves our mission and backs us big-time, so we decided to do a gala there and honor him. We’re just hoping to get a lot of people, especially young people, involved in our organization, and we’re going to make the gala a lot of fun. 

JJ: What are you hoping to highlight to the Los Angeles Jewish community? 

EB: Saving lives. We’ve treated 3.5 million people. They all got amazing help and no one had to pay for it. But what’s right up there is the diversity. Once we opened up to let just anyone in with a good heart, not just Jews, that’s when we changed the name to United Hatzalah. Not only do we save lives, but we’re able to bring all different types of people in Israel together. It’s an unbelievable display of tikkun olam. Many people only see Israel’s bad sides. It also has a lot of beautiful sides. We’re bringing a volunteer to the gala. She’s a Muslim woman with five children who has never been outside of Israel. We’re also bringing an ultra-religious Jewish woman. Whether or not you’re a Zionist, which side of the conflict you’re on, that isn’t a part of this. Anyone who wants to be part of this system that puts life before anything else can join. It’s a beautiful thing. n

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