Aély Haccoun’s leisurely dinner in Tel Aviv took an unexpected turn when her cousin’s phone alerted them to an accident a mere block away from their restaurant. Her cousin, doing what comes to volunteer medics naturally, stopped what he was doing, looked at Haccoun and said, “Let’s go.”
They ran a few meters and saw a group of United Hatzalah medics already at the scene trying to resuscitate an unconscious elderly woman lying prone on the ground.
“They were working hard to revive her, it wasn’t going well. After 40 minutes the head paramedic turned to the woman’s son and said, ‘Only a miracle can save your mother now.’”
It isn’t often that miracles transpire on demand, but on that January night two years ago, that’s exactly what happened.
“Right then her heart started again. It was a very intense moment for me. Then I knew I had to be part of United Hatzalah,” Haccoun recalled.
“I never want to be in a life-threatening situation and be a helpless bystander again,” she vowed.
Keeping true to her promise, Haccoun recently completed her United Hatzalah training to be a volunteer medic for the life-saving organization.
However, that is just one of the major life-changes Haccoun has made this past decade.
“When I turned 25, I came to Israel for a visit and fell in love – it was like a slap in the face,” Haccoun, who made aliya seven years ago said. “I remembered all the things I wanted to do here – learn Hebrew, see my family and understand what makes this country tick. It was a bit of a quarter life crisis, I decided to just do it.”
For Haccoun those two big changes – joining the United Hatzalah family and making aliya – are intertwined.
Both experiences have complemented each other and helped her feel more integrated into Israeli society, said the French olah (immigrant).
“It makes you more involved in society. Sometimes it can be hard for olim [immigrants] to integrate – either they don’t do the army, or come to the country later and don’t have a support system,” she said.
“But at United Hatzalah you become part of a family and you meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she added.
Adam Zilberberg, from Argentina, relates to that familial feeling that comes with joining United Hatzalah. “This is a warm organization with lots of heart. They are willing to help people around the clock,” he said. “This organization represents the good side of the country. It feels like a big hug to anybody who is involved in the organization. It feels like being part of a family.”
The toshav hozer (returning resident) decided to come back to Israel specifically so he could enroll in the IDF. So at 16 he convinced his parents to return to Israel so they could help him realize his dream of protecting and serving Israel.
As an adult, Zilberberg continued his dedication to protecting Israeli citizens. Today, he serves as a Border Police officer and volunteers for United Hatzalah in whatever free time he has.
“I don’t do other things,” said bluntly. “If I have free time it’s spent with United Hatzalah.”
Why the passionate need to give back?
“I feel like I got a lot from this country,” he revealed. “What you have here – this love for thy neighbor – you don’t have in other countries. In Argentina, people don’t come in and check up on you in the middle of the night if you’re not feeling well.”
Zilberberg joined United Hatzalah a year and a half ago after he learned of his grandmother’s death. His grandmother died alone back in Argentina with nobody to care for her. Whenever he sees an elderly person now, he can’t help but think of the grandmother he could not save.
“Nobody cared for her in the way she deserved. She was neglected emotionally and physically,” he explained. “Sometimes I treat elderly people on a United Hatzalah call and I think of how I wish there had been someone to care for my grandmother like I’m caring for these people.
“It’s good to know that in this country if an elderly person falls in the middle of the night, someone will come and help them,” he said.
For Melanie Berkowitz, who made aliya from Canada 35 years ago, like Zilberberg, saving lives is both a profession and a hobby.
Berkowitz, who is a nurse, joined United Hatzalah because she was struck by how many Israelis don’t survive the ambulance ride to the hospital. Berkowitz wanted to be part of United Hatzalah’s goal to eradicate this tragic phenomenon.
“This was an opportunity to give back to the community and build up skills as a nurse,” she said.
“I strongly believe the idea of saving a life and having volunteers all over the country makes all the difference,” added.
As for olim and their contribution to Israel, Berkowitz believes that all olim give something back to Israel simply by deciding to abandon their former lives and start over in the Holy Land.
“I think all olim contribute to the country – it’s already a donation. I’ve always had the attitude to see what I can give, not what people can give me. I have no fantasy the country owes me anything. But here in Israel, at least, there’s so many choices of organizations that can help. The country really believes in it,” she said.