‘I used my barmitzvah money to start an ambulance service’

United Hatzalah's Eli Beer tells the story of how he established Israel's volunteer-based emergency response service


The Talmudic principle “whoever saves one life saves the world” could not be more aptly applied to Eli Beer.

Since 1978, when as a young boy he witnessed a bus bombing in Israel, he has devoted himself to finding a way to save lives — and with the establishment of United Hatzalah, or United Rescue, he has helped to save thousands, both in Israel and around the world.

Mr Beer, cheerful and upbeat, was in Britain last month to meet potential donors to the British Friends of United Hatzalah and to discuss upcoming projects.

He says that he had “too much energy” and not enough application to sit and study to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

Instead, he reveals with a grin, he was “thrown out” of his strict Charedi yeshiva at the age of 12 and taken into his father’s English-language bookshop, where he devoured all the tomes he could, and eventually, aged 15, joined a local ambulance service as an emergency medical volunteer.

“There are more than 100 ambulance companies in Israel, all private, and they all charge for their services. But they all take time until they arrive: the ambulance is big, the streets are narrow, and they have nowhere to move.”

The teenage Eli used to write down details of every emergency call to his ambulance service and worked out that the average response time was a life-draining 17 minutes.

“I wondered, why can’t we get to emergencies faster? I decided, I’m going to start a group of volunteers, who are going to respond before the ambulances.”

But the problem, as he soon discovered, “was that the ambulance services did not want to share their emergency calls with us — it’s their business, their client”.

The resourceful Mr Beer decided that if he and his group couldn’t get the details the legitimate way, he would have to go another route.

He used his barmitzvah money to buy a couple of police scanners and listen in on the emergency calls: “Whenever something happened nearby, we were there.

The first time it happened, it was a 70-year-old man who got hit by a car and I stopped his bleeding by using my yarmulke [to staunch the flow], until the ambulance arrived.”

Their mission, he makes clear, was not to replace the ambulance service but to augment it. And the ambulance crews themselves, he says, appreciated what Mr Beer and his friends were doing.

Slowly, United Hatzalah emerged from the original group of 15 unregulated friends to a national service in Israel, using specially equipped motorbikes, or “ambucycles”, which can get over rough or urban terrain in a way ambulances simply cannot. Mr Beer likens those early days to “being Superman, saving lives”.

Today his organisation has a $25 million (£19.3 million) budget in Israel, where he reckons they treat around 1,600 people every day.

Response times are now down to as little as three minutes and the 5,000 volunteers, all highly trained in dealing with medical emergencies, are on call every day of the year, all hours of the day.

One of the most attractive aspects of United Hatzalah — whose model has now been rolled out in many countries around the world, from Panama to India and the United States — is Mr Beer’s insistence that it is a service for everybody.

So there are Muslim and Christian volunteers, secular and religious, men and women, and the service operates in every kind of neighbourhood.

Just the same, it was Mr Beer’s wife Gitty who saw a gap in UH services after she joined as a volunteer five years ago. She pushed him to implement “women to women” responses for modesty and humanitarian reasons, not religious.

Now two London sisters, who asked not to be identified, have raised money for what Mr Beer claims is the world’s first women-only ambulance, crewed and operated only by women volunteers.

So there is a place for ambulances in United Hatzalah’s work. But for vital first responders, only a motorbike will do.

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