Follow Your Dream: Interview with Eli Beer, Founder of United Hatzalah
In anticipation of the United Hatzalah Gala on February 27th at the Beverly Hilton, Jewish Home spoke with Eli Beer, United Hatzalah’s founder.
JH: You started out as a boy with a dream. How did this dream evolve over the years, and how did the development of the organization you started surprise you?
EB: The most amazing part of it is getting thousands of people to believe in my dream, to devote their lives to it. It’s incredible—I never dreamt that something like this would actually happen! I have people who are devoted to this organization all around Eretz Yisrael, people that believe exactly like me on this mission. My dream will never die because so many people are waiting to join this family of lifesavers.
One of my beautiful moments last year was when I made a calculation to see how many children in Israel dress up on Purim as United Hatzalah volunteers. 21,000 kids! 900 kids made their bicycles look like ambucycles! That is the fulfillment of my dream. Hatzalah in Israel now has 6300 volunteers, and another 3500 people waiting to join. We are very careful who we join—we have a big process—but thousands of people want to be part of it. It was my dream, and now it’s so many other people’s dream.
JH: What obstacles did you encounter in the process?
EB: My biggest obstacle was bureaucracy. Israel is a country full of bureaucracy, which makes it hard for organizations to start. When we started, there was an ambulance organization in Israel that had a monopoly. It was important to us that they continue and do their good work, but the way they were working was inefficient, and many people did not survive because they didn’t get there fast enough. We started doing what we did because we thought we could fill in the gap between the time people call for help until they arrive. The ambulance services did not like that. My biggest obstacle was overcoming their powerful union.
JH: How was your work threatening the ambulance services?
EB: We were offering our services for free and had no conflict of interest. A lot of people that receive our help don’t need to go to the hospital afterwards, and that’s a loss of revenue. We realized that many things can be treated at home, such as asthma attacks or epileptic shock—chronic diseases. We come and treat, and they don’t need an ambulance. They can stay home or go to the doctor.
So that’s something that I realized—Hatzalah’s job is not only to help people in life-threatening situations, but also sometimes by not taking people to the hospital. We don’t take risks—we have doctors we consult with—but people don’t always need to go to the hospital, and in fact, hospitals could be dangerous for them. My mother is 92 years old. The last place I want for her to be is in the hospital. If she is not feeling well, I’ll make sure that she’s be treated correctly, but to go to the hospital is a danger for her life, especially in the winter.
That’s why Hatzalah is so important: You need a volunteer service that has zero personal interest, no financial interest in their service. We treated 4.5 million people. Not one of them got billed.
JH: How many people does United Hatzalah treat per year?
EB: This year, we treated 540,000 people. This is the most we ever treated. We treat 700 people per day, throughout Israel, from the Golan Heights to Eilat. We’re not a small local organization, we’re a national service. We started with frum people, but now we have everyone who wants to be part of it. It’s a big kiddush Hashem; we have people from all sectors.
JH: How does United Hatzalah unite people from different sectors?
EB: This is one of the nicest things about United Hatzalah, and that’s why we changed the name from Hatzalah to United Hatzalah. I went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky many years ago and said to him, “Rav Chaim, we have a serious problem. In some areas in Israel, we don’t have volunteers. People call us for help, and we can’t help them because we’re too far.” He said, “What do you mean? Why don’t you have volunteers there?” I said, “Because there are no frum people there.” He said, “You should have non-frum people join. You’re giving them the zechus of saving lives. It’s the biggest mitzvah you could do.”
So we started recruiting non-frum people. Everyone who we recruit has to go through our training, which includes halachah training. They are not religious, but our job is to save lives. We actually united every type of person living in Israel, and it became the biggest kiddush Hashem that you can imagine.
We united so many people in this organization—Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite, frum or not, Meah Shearim and Hertzlia—that is incredible and makes the organization so special.
JH: What is United Hatzalah’s relationship with Rav Chaim Kanievsky?
EB: Rav Chaim Kanievsky is one of our biggest supporters who loves Hatzalah tremendously. Every time I come to him, he gives me a donation to Hatzalah. He says, “Every Jew has to have the zechus of saving lives, and I want to have the zechus too.” He came to visit the headquarters last year on Sukkos, even though he was very weak, to give us chizzuk. It was a beautiful thing.
JH: How does one join United Hatzalah?
EB: People actually register on our website all day. Don’t forget: kids are dreaming to become Hatzalah volunteers! Not everyone can just join. We have a process: we check everyone out, see what kind of job they have, if it allows them to be on call. Every volunteer is obligated to go out to at least 30 calls every month.
The minimum age for joining Hatzalah is 21, and there is no maximum. Our oldest volunteer is 83. He is a tzaddik. When it became hard for him to ride an ambucycle, we got him an electric minicar, and he still goes out to calls.
JH: Do kids from secular communities also dream of volunteering for Hatzalah?
EB: Of course! I went to Tel Aviv last year on Purim and saw kids without yarmulkes or anything wearing Hatzalah costumes. Hatzalah became one of their heroes, and they want to be a hero when they grow up.
JH: How does United Hatzalah reach beyond the Jewish community?
EB: In Eretz Yisrael, we have a big responsibility for everyone living in our country. We have areas that are mixed. We decided to recruit non-Jews to Hatzalah. Of course, they go through our screening process. We have hundreds of people from the Arab community who want to join Hatzalah, and they are proud to be part of it. One Arab volunteer was the first to respond to the shooting on Har Habayis. He put his own life in danger and saved a young policeman’s life. I gave him an award, but he said he didn’t need an award. It was his obligation to save lives.
JH: Do other countries copy the Hatzalah model?
EB: One of my missions in life is to make sure that word of Hatzalah is spread everywhere in the world. I travel around the world and speak about it. This week I am going to speak in Mumbai, India. Panama, Ukraine, and Portugal have adopted the model, and other countries have expressed interest. I gave a private presentation to the Queen of Jordan, and she loved it. Jordan hasn’t implemented it yet, but maybe one day they will. I also gave a presentation in Dubai, and there was a big interest.
JH: What is your response time and how do you achieve it?
EB: Nationwide, the response is under three minutes. Some cities are faster than others. In the fastest city, Bnei Brak, it’s 75 seconds. We achieve it by building a network of volunteers. The bigger and more crowded the network is the faster we get there. We have a five-year plan for where Israel needs most volunteers, and we choose volunteers according to where they are working and living. We have strategic planners in our organization, and they do a lot of research and put our ambucycles according to where they are needed.
JH: What is your budget, and what is your main source of funding?
EB: Our budget is about $25 million a year. Thirty percent of our income comes from Israeli donors, and the rest from worldwide. We have some funding from local municipalities but since we don’t charge for service we depend on donations. That’s why the upcoming Gala is very important.
JH: How can people from Los Angeles get involved and help?
EB: We have an office here, and people can meet with local staff and donate equipment. Some people sponsor a day of work in honor of a birthday or yahrtzeit. We have one Gala a year. This year, Jay Leno is coming—he is a big supporter. We have other local people on the board.
JH: How did your work affect you personally?
EB: It made me a better person. When you give others, you benefit a lot more yourself.
My wife and children are all involved. My kids volunteer. My wife started a women’s division of Hatzalah, women and midwives helping women. It’s such a beautiful and tznius thing to do. With the support of all the rabbanim, we have women responding to emergencies. So many people are afraid to make these changes and have women respond. In Hatzalah, we decided to do the right thing because halachically, that’s the best thing to do. We do things according to halachah, not according to pas nischt.
JH: What would you advise young men and women who have big dreams?
EB: Nothing comes easy but never give up! When I started it was almost impossible to do what we did but if I saw a door closed, I came through the window. If you have a dream go for it till the end and don’t let anyone stop you.
Also, everyone should come next week to our beautiful event! It will be catered by La Gondola, with great food. We are honoring Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, unbelievable super-Jews in the world. There will be a variety of every type of Jew, and even non-Jews will come to support. It will be a big kiddush Hashem!