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Saving lives one motorcycle trip at a time
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Saving lives one motorcycle trip at a time

About 400 times a day, United Hatzalah of Israel dispatches one of its ambucycles to help someone in urgent need of help, free of charge.

Mark Gerson points out that about 10 percent of those calls involve saving a life — around 146,000 a year.

As the organization’s Summit-based chair and the person responsible for gathering international support, Gerson wants all those numbers to grow.

“We raise $3.5 million a year globally,” Gerson said. “If we can raise $7 million, we can put a trained and equipped volunteer with an ambucycle within two to four minutes of every person in Israel.”

The two-wheeled ambulances have two primary advantages: They can weave through the streets faster than a regular ambulance, and they cost about $26,000 at the present rate of exchange, compared to $120,000 for an ambulance.

That logic caught Gerson’s imagination. The founder and head of the Gerson Lehrman Group, a research and referral firm, he first heard about United Hatzalah seven years ago. A friend invited him to dinner in Manhattan with Eli Beer, the organization’s founder and leader, knowing that with his interest in philanthropy and supporting causes in Israel, this would appeal to him.

“I did the rather simple math and the return on one’s philanthropic dollar was pretty fantastic,” Gerson said. “The ambucycles are guaranteed to save lives, for a few dollars per life.”

The scooter-like vehicles — 150 of them stationed around the country — can’t transport a patient. If transportation is needed, an ambulance is sent, one of Hatzalah’s or one from another company, but often the emergency is handled without need for hospitalization.

They are driven by volunteers trained and certified as emergency medical technicians, paramedics, or physicians. They carry a defibrillator, burn kits, medications, and other essentials.

Gerson not only gave dollars; he has given his time, too. He has served as chair of the organization for the past five years.

His wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson, is also involved. Last December, she and their three-year-old-son Joshua visited the Hatzalah headquarters in Jerusalem with a group of families from Temple B’nai Jeshurun, the Reform congregation in Short Hills where she is a board member.

She called the 1,700 volunteers “the soul of the organization.” They come from all parts of Israeli society, Jewish and Arab, secular and religious.

“They are so passionate about saving lives,” she wrote in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News. “I asked Eli Beer whether there is a problem with burnout among the volunteers because they each respond to so many calls per year. I would have guessed that they averaged no more than three years of active service. To my great surprise Eli informed me that they rarely have any volunteer deactivate. He said that once they have the experience of saving a person’s life, they are addicted to Hatzalah.”

The Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center, an Orthodox congregation in Livingston, has also raised funds for the organization. In addition to the local causes that it supports, each year the hesed committee selects an organization in Israel as the beneficiary of its fall campaign. United Hatzalah was chosen in 2011 after the cochair of the committee, who asked not to be named, visited the Jerusalem headquarters to check it out. In October, Beer himself came to speak at the synagogue. “He gave a very positive impression,” the cochair said.

The campaign raised $102,000 in just over three months, thanks to additional donations from relatives of congregants. It was enough to purchase four ambucycles.

“We usually average about $23,000, but I think this campaign was so successful because it is about saving lives,” he said. “Apart from its usual work, if there is another war — and people say it is just a matter of time — the ambucycles could play a huge role in saving civilian lives.”

Hatzalah’s work has attracted attention from some unexpected quarters. Mark Gerson mentioned that the Arab television network Al Jazeera did a 26-minute documentary on it that has had wide exposure in the Arab world. It has been written up in the Jerusalem Post and the British magazine The Economist, among others. Beer was invited to speak about the organization at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Gerson said, “We raise $3.5 million a year globally. If we can raise $7 million, we can put a trained and equipped volunteer with an ambucycle within two to four minutes of every person in Israel.”

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