Starting later this month, residents of Chicago’s far North Side, Skokie, and Lincolnwood will be able to get help in addition to 911 for medical emergencies. A team of local Orthodox Jews is launching a new emergency response service called Hatzalah Chicago to augment services in the areas where high concentrations Orthodox Jews live. Members hope the service will help resolve some unique religious tensions that can come up in emergency situations.
Imagine, say, that it’s Friday night and you start feeling chest pain. Most non-Jews wouldn’t think twice about it; they’d just pick up the phone and dial 911. But the calculation’s not so simple for Orthodox Jews because Friday night is the Sabbath, and they’re not supposed to use electricity.
“We have obviously a lot of doctors in the community, and I remember one of the doctors told me a story where somebody literally walked over to his house, I don’t remember, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, literally in pain, cardiac pain,” recounted Rivka Kompel, one of Hatzalah Chicago’s board members. “[He] thought he was possibly having a heart attack, and he still walked to the person’s house 20 or 30 minutes because it was the Sabbath."
In Hebrew, Hatzalah means “rescue.” Hatzalah Chicago is a non-profit organization funded through private donations and staffed by unpaid volunteers. Kompel says the mission is to prevent more stories like the example she gave. Kompel says Jewish law allows people to break the Sabbath in life-or-death situations, but problems arise because, sometimes, people can’t tell the difference between what’s serious and what’s not.
Hatzalah’s emergency medical technicians are trained in both medicine and religious law. Kompel hopes they’ll help people make smarter decisions when it comes to the intersection of religious law and medical urgency.
Simcha Frank has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get Hatzalah off the ground. The team’s dispatch center is just a small, windowless room in a Skokie office park. But while the group has been setting up, they’ve used the room for equipment storage. The day he showed the facillty to me, the phone rang.
“That’s weird,” Frank said, after hanging up. “So there’s this organization nationwide that keeps track of all the Hatzalahs. They wanted to see if we’re operational.”
Lots of other cities have Hatzalahs. Frank, a Jewish funeral home director, says his baby nephew was saved by Hatzalah Brooklyn. He got advice from Hatzalah Baltimore.
Here’s how the service will work: If someone in the service area experiences a medical emergency, they still need to call 911. But Frank hopes they’ll also call another number for Hatzalah. Hatzalah’s dispatch center will radio its 40-or-so EMTs.
Each EMT has gone through standard training at Malcolm X College or Vista Health Systems, a hospital in Waukegan, Ill. They carry emergency medical equipment in their cars at all times — things like oxygen tanks, defibrillators, and first aid supplies. That helps them stabilize a patient in the first minutes after a call’s put out.
But once the fire department or an ambulance comes on scene, Hatzalah backs off. That’s part of Frank’s agreements with Chicago, Skokie and Lincolnwood.
But there are other things that Hatzalah can do that are unique to this religious community, things that other emergency response services may not consider — particularly on the Sabbath.
“So let’s say now Chicago Fire Department comes to the house on a Friday night, (and) they say we’re going to call your mother so they could come watch your kids,” said Frank. “You could call your mother from today ‘til tomorrow, they won’t answer the phone. So you actually have to physically go to the house, knock on the door, because they won’t answer the phone.”
Hatzalah responders can also make sure that if someone goes to the hospital on the Sabbath, they bring along a couple of bags of grape juice, a pack that’s something like a goodie bag. This allows the patients to observe Kiddush, the Jewish ceremony of praying over wine to start the Sabbath.
As for the EMTs, if they respond to something on the Sabbath, you might ask -- aren’t they violating the Sabbath by working? Frank says Hatzalah Chicago has a rabbinical board to think through those things.
“That’s where the Rabbinical Board comes in and says you guys need to do this in order to be a good responder,” said Frank. “You won’t be good to your community if your car is under two feet of snow. You won’t be good to your community if you don’t have an oxygen tank. You won’t be good to your community if you don’t have a radio to talk on.”
Barry Liss, Skokie’s deputy fire chief, says he’s never seen a small group start up a volunteer emergency service in Skokie. Liss says when Hatzalah first approached him to tell him what they were building, he was surprised.
“We weren’t certain that there was a need,” said Liss. “We want to know if there’s something we are missing, because we want to provide that need. That’s what society relies on. They rely on their emergency services to provide their emergency services to them.”
Liss is concerned that residents might stop calling 911 just because Hatzalah’s around. Hatzalah officials say they don’t want that to happen either. They say if someone who needs care doesn’t call 911, Hatzalah will. That’s partly because Hatzalah itself needs the fire department; as of now, and for the immediate future, Hatzalah doesn’t have the ability to transport patients to the hospital.
Liss says it’s good to have more boots on the ground, but he stopped short of praising the operation.
“We don’t know how it will work. Nor do they,” said Liss. “Just because you initiate something, you need to give it time to evaluate it. And that’s what we ask them to do.”
Liss says it’ll take a couple of years to know whether Hatzalah is making a difference, and Simcha Frank agrees. Frank says he has no idea how many calls Hatzalah will get, and he won’t know until it goes live. Still, he may do his own evaluation sooner. In 18 months Frank plans to revisit whether or not Hatzalah should buy ambulances and start transporting patients on its own.