Hatzalah is a team of state-certified Emergency Medical Services (EMS) volunteer responders who stand at the ready 24-7 to respond to local emergencies.
“Hatzalah. What’s your emergency?”
Residents of Oak Park, Southfield and Huntington Woods have a trusted number to call in times of crisis — Hatzalah of Michigan, whose volunteers readily and willingly put their lives on pause to respond to emergency calls, often leaving their jobs, homes or child’s birthday party to provide lifesaving care to their neighbors.
Hatzalah, which partners with the Oakland County Medical Control Authority (OCMCA), the Southfield Fire Department, Oak Park Public Safety and Alliance Mobile Health, is a team of state-certified Emergency Medical Services (EMS) volunteer responders who stand at the ready 24-7 to respond to local emergencies.
The 17 volunteer Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and 25 volunteer dispatchers are made up of city council members, rabbis, teachers, fitness instructors, corporate analysts and other professionals, moms and dads and neighbors, who drop everything to respond quietly and without fanfare to those in need.
Launched in fall 2017, Hatzalah of Michigan (also known as Detroit Hatzalah) is state-licensed and regulated by the OCMCA, which oversees all EMS personnel in the county. Hatzalah personnel are licensed EMS providers, who are further advised by a panel of doctors and have trained with fire and ambulance personnel. Once licensed, volunteers continue their education with monthly trainings led by local doctors.
Hatzalah is designed to complement the emergency response services of their communities — not compete with them. Because Hatzalah volunteers are embedded within the community, they can often reach the person who needs help in less than 2 minutes, compared to the 5-to-7-minute response time of the local EMS. Sometimes, those seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
The first Hatzalah began in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Rabbi Hershel Weber in the late 1960s. Weber was in shul when he witnessed someone having a heart attack. It took EMS nearly 20 minutes to arrive, and Weber stood there and watched as the man died because there was no one there to help him. Weber made a promise to himself that he would never be caught in that situation again. He created the organization made up of volunteer medics. His concept has since spread around the world.
Today, Hatzalah is the largest volunteer ambulance service in the United States, with more than 80 ambulances and almost 2,000 volunteer EMTs, as well as dozens of branches throughout the world.
Hatzalah MI executive board member Nachy Soloff grew up in Monsey, N.Y., and was accustomed to the service. “It was second nature. You had a medical emergency, you called Hatzalah. They would be there a minute later, and you were comfortable with the person coming,” he said. “When I moved here about 15 years ago, I saw the community was missing that.”
While Detroit has been home to an Orthodox community for over a century, it hadn’t been until recent years that it grew to some 2,000 families, finally having the resources and call volume to make a Hatzalah feasible. So, in 2016, Hatzalah executive board member Bentzi Oseroff began the process of bringing the volunteer emergency service to Metro Detroit.
“I saw the need to provide a link between our Jewish community, where some people — because of cultural and language barriers or because they are Holocaust survivors — are uncomfortable dealing with outsiders and local emergency service providers in Oak Park and Southfield,” Oseroff said.
Oseroff turned to community leader Gary Torgow to help bring Hatzalah MI to fruition. Because it was a new concept, leaders of Oak Park and Southfield public safety, as well as local municipal leaders were not on board with the idea right away. Torgow helped to arrange a trip to take those leaders to Hatzalah Chicago, which had been operating in the city for 10 years. After listening to the fire chief of Chicago and having all their questions answered, local city and public safety leaders were convinced it could be done in Oak Park and Southfield and plans moved forward.
Oak Park Public Safety Director Steven Cooper had the opportunity to go to Chicago and see Hatzalah in action. “I had questions I wanted answered,” he said. “How was it going to flow? What level of training were the people going to receive? Would Hatzalah respond to all people in Oak Park? It was the chance to talk to people who had boots on the ground.”
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Oak Park headquarters of Hatzalah MI in summer 2017, Torgow told the crowd, “We have extraordinary leaders and public servants in our cities. Without them, we would not have been able to do this.” Torgow also singled out Bentzi Oseroff for his “vision and dedication to the community.”
Southfield Fire Chief Johnny Menifee told the JN, “I’m so happy we took this on. I would do it all over again. It’s been tenfold what we originally envisioned when we first started.
“We envisioned a partnership that would help to serve our citizens better. There’s a lot of diversity in Southfield, and we get to learn a lot about the Jewish community from Hatzalah. It’s helped us up our game in the department.
“What’s more is that Hatzalah has embraced us,” he added. “It’s like a family, and I love that aspect. I love what we’ve accomplished so far and look forward to the future. It’s been a win-win.”
Other key people on the Hatzalah team include Dave Mills, who leads quality assurance and quality improvement for the organization and serves as an instructor. “He makes sure our licensure and continuing education credits are up to date and a lot more than that,” Soloff said. “He has a great grasp of what it takes to make sure Hatzalah is running smoothly and is constantly helping us get better.”
Asher Sigler, who has extensive experience as an EMT, serves as Hatzalah’s captain or management level responder. “He’s been involved from the get-go and has helped guide us since the beginning,” said Soloff, who also singles out fellow executive board member Mickey Eizelman for the wealth of management and leadership experience he brings to the board. “He’s a stalwart force behind everything we do at Hatzalah.”
Soloff added that “Hatzalah would not be complete without our medical director, Dr. Steve McGraw.” McGraw is also the medical director for the Oakland County Medical Control Authority, as well as runs the emergency room at Ascension Providence Hospital in Southfield. “He’s truly an angel, a remarkable human being,” Soloff said.
Dr. McGraw deflected the praise sent his way. “These volunteers are remarkable. They’ve made me, in many ways, a better doctor and, I hope, a better person,” he said. “All I do is provide a signature each spring and some Sunday-night medical conferences. I’m humbled by the fact that they get up in the middle of the night to help their fellow man without being paid. This is essentially a spiritual calling to help someone in need. And I don’t know if you can figure out anything better than that.”
Boots on the Ground
So how does Hatzalah work? According to executive board member Rabbi Bentzy Schechter, Hatzalah volunteers are available day or night, wherever they might be, at work, home or in the community. They live and work throughout the communities they serve, so there is always someone nearby when a call comes in.
When a call does come in to Hatzalah, a volunteer dispatcher will put out a radio call to volunteers. Whoever is closest and available will drop what they are doing and respond. Hatzalah services about two square miles and has responders in several “zones” to allow for the quickest response time.
The dispatcher sends the call’s address and details to the responder who is equipped with a medical bag of supplies in the trunk of their car. This “jump bag” trauma kit includes all the supplies needed to save lives, including an oxygen kit and an AED defibrillator.
The volunteer arrives on the scene in less than two minutes. Meanwhile as per the agreement with Oak Park and Southfield, the dispatcher calls 911 immediately. While Hatzalah volunteers can handle nearly any medical emergency, they cannot transport people to the hospital — although they will meet them there to provide support and comfort.
Volunteers respond to anyone in the community — Jewish or not. Orthodox community members more often turn to Hatzalah rather than 911 because they find a comfort level in dealing with people they know, rather than strangers. Hatzalah volunteers know that a Jew reluctant to violate Shabbat rules when receiving medical attention may be more at ease and easily convinced of the medical urgency when the emergency responder is a fellow Orthodox Jew.
“Hatzalah helps us out a great deal with the Jewish community when there is some hesitancy or if there’s some misunderstandings about the medical treatment to be received,” said Oak Park Public Safety Director Steven Cooper.
Soloff cites a recent example. “We had an elderly gentleman patient who was very, very hesitant. He didn’t trust doctors, hospitals and EMS. He didn’t want any care. But his family knew me so they called and asked me what to do,” he said. “I was able to call ahead to the hospital and let the family know, ‘Hey, look, we’re taking care of you. The hospital is going to be on board with us working hand-in-hand.’ That alleviated a lot of their concerns.”
Schechter cited another example that resulted in an award for Hatzalah and the Southfield Fire Department from the Oakland County Medical Authority.
“It was a mid-winter, gray morning on 10 Mile,” he said. “A man visiting from Israel was hit by a car crossing the street because of the low visibility.” Southfield first responders got to the scene, but they couldn’t communicate with him because he spoke only Hebrew.
“The medic on scene called into our dispatch, looking for our help. Our dispatcher told him Hatzalah volunteers would meet them at the hospital. There, they were able to translate and reached out to the man’s son in Israel for his medical records, which was critical because the man had a brain bleed and surgeons couldn’t operate without them. We were able to translate those records so he could be rushed into surgery, which saved his life.”
Hatzalah recently secured a Lucas device. This easy-to-use mechanical chest compression device delivers high-quality, consistent chest compressions to sudden cardiac arrest patients. “It has major success rates at saving lives,” Oseroff said. “We’ve partnered with the city of Oak Park, so if they have someone who needs it, Hatzalah will rush it to where it’s needed.”
Although the lifesaving work of the volunteers is critical, Hatzalah MI offers even more, such as CPR, babysitter and lifeguard training as well as safety awareness. And working with its partners, they’ve done much to improve and safeguard the public health of the community they serve.
The Covid Pandemic
“Nothing in 28 years of medical practice ever could have prepared me for what I was about to see and do,” Dr. McGraw said of the COVID pandemic that first hit in March 2020.
In the beginning, people who thought they might be ill with the disease were asked to stay away from hospitals if they could. As a result, Hatzalah volunteers responded to numerous calls, going to some patients’ homes multiple times.
“There was an increase in call volume,” Soloff said. “People were short of breath and sick, and we dealt with each call using all the personal protective equipment required by state and county protocol so volunteers wouldn’t get sick. From March to May was the peak of it, quite a busy time.”
Although volunteers put themselves at risk of catching COVID, Soloff said that none of them considered themselves to be brave. “Because each one of them doesn’t think about themselves. These are people who care about others and that’s their mindset.”
Kate Guzman, public health administrator at the Oakland County Public Health Department, became a close partner, according to Soloff. Working with Guzman, Hatzalah volunteers were trained to do the swabbing for COVID testing, both rapid and overnight testing, during the early days of the pandemic.
“I learned how essential Hatzalah is early in our partnership,” Guzman said. “We work with them on COVID testing and vaccination. They help staff our events when we need help. They are always ready to help.”
Hatzalah volunteers helped the health department with swabbing people living in assisted living facilities throughout the county. “We did a lot of swabbing together,” Soloff said.
Hatzalah MI also partnered with the Mayo Clinic and other Hatzalah organizations to offer COVID-19 IGG antibody testing in May 2020 to identify candidates eligible to donate plasma and save lives. Results from their blood drive, sponsored by TCF Bank, determined 100 of those tested had the antibodies needed to donate plasma to COVID patients.
Volunteers helped with COVID swab testing for young people going to camp last summer; and, when the vaccine became available, Hatzalah volunteers would help at vaccine clinics with post-vaccine observation, and, if at the end of day, there were doses left over, Hatzalah members would find people to receive the vaccines so none would go to waste.
When the vaccine became widely available, Soloff said, the only people who were underserved were the homebound. With the help of Dr. McGraw, Hatzalah MI became the only Hatzalah in the country authorized to give in-home vaccines to community members.
“I have never been more proud of a group of people that I worked with,” Dr. McGraw said. “The way they stood up, helped each other and worked with one another to get us through that. They encountered personal and community loss on an unprecedented scale and, despite that, they did what they were supposed to and didn’t fail.”
There’s more to being a member of Hatzalah than the willingness to respond to a call at a moment’s notice. Because many of the people they serve in Oak Park and Southfield are Orthodox Jews, Hatzalah volunteers are also trained in Halachah (Jewish law) so they can navigate lifesaving skills, such as the need to drive on Shabbos, while keeping to Torah law. The organization has a local rabbinic coordinator that runs a class every other week. Volunteers are required to attend a minimum number of classes each year. Those who can’t attend each class are emailed information on the laws discussed.
Hatzalah is also like a family, according to Dr. McGraw. “I may be an Irish Catholic kid, but the Orthodox community is my community now, too.”
He was reminded of that recently, with the death of someone who “embodied the spirit of Hatzalah,” Rabbi Yehuda Kranczer, 47, who died as he lived, serving the community he loved. His fellow Hatzalah members were unable to resuscitate him after he’d suffered cardiac arrest.
“It was heartbreaking, a gut punch,” Dr. McGraw said. “He’d been with Hatzalah since before the beginning. A little bit of a headwind never mattered to him. He saw what we could do with more clarity than anybody.”
According to Guzman, two days before his death, Rabbi Kranzcer met with her at the health department, dropping off COVID testing samples from homebound patients. “He said to me ‘What do you need help with?’ I told him we were having trouble getting out to some homebound residents. He said, ‘I’ll vaccinate anyone — just give me a list. I’m yours.”
At Rabbi Kranzcer’s funeral, McGraw said he was “surrounded by folks grieving similarly to me, which made it bearable in some way. He leaves monumental shoes to fill. I’m comfortable people will step up to fill them, though. He was so widely loved and admired that no one would let his legacy go unfulfilled.”
Like Rabbi Kranzcer, Hatzalah volunteers are dedicated to hatzalas nefashos, the saving of lives. Volunteer Rabbi Shragie Myers recounts one memorable call he made where the patient was having an allergic reaction and couldn’t catch their breath. “To be able to get there and give lifesaving oxygen,” Myers said, “it was a surreal experience to be giving someone life. Here was a person gasping, and I had the training and the equipment to give oxygen. It was the most incredible experience.”
Myers says he became a volunteer so he could have that opportunity. “In Judaism, when you save a life — or prolong a life — you save the whole world,” he said. “There are three pillars of Judaism: Torah, service to God and kindness. Standing at the ready 24-7 adds the element of kindness to everything I do.”
The number of lives saved by Hatzalah MI has been amazing, Oseroff said. “Within seconds, people can receive lifesaving help from people dedicated to taking from their time to help any person in need. We’re here to help.”
For more information on Hatzalah of Michigan, visit: mihatzalah.org.