Known as Hatzolah, the fast-acting 24/7 service came about as a solution to a basic problem for Melbourne’s Adass Israel community – the most ultra-orthodox sect of Australia’s Jewish community.
“Being Orthodox and Jewish means that we don't travel on Shabbas,” explains Raizel Fogel, a matriarch and prominent member of Melbourne’s Adass community, featured in SBS’s documentary Strictly Jewish: The Secret World of Adass Israel.
“Our Sabbath starts Friday from sunset to Saturday night sunset," she continues.
"We don’t use the phone, we don’t use our cars, we don’t switch lights on or off, and we don’t use anything electrical. It’s really shut down time, it’s just like nothing else exists, it's just you and your family and the Sabbath.”
So what happens then if there’s a medical emergency on the Sabbath?
While the Sabbath laws are considered sacrosanct, they are permitted to be broken if it is a case of life and death. The patient still needs to get to hospital as soon as possible.
Fishmonger Yumi Friedman, who also features in Strictly Jewish, was one of the founders of Adass' unique paramedic service. He explains that “even in the day of atonement, if you save someone’s life it doesn't matter, it's like you save the whole world.”
On how the service first came about, Yumi explains, “we were sitting in the Synagogue in shul and someone collapsed and we couldn't save his life.”
So the community looked overseas, where similar Jewish communities around the world, from London to Israel operate their own Hatzolah services.
“We decided that if there's a Hatzolah in New York, why don't we make one in Australia?” says Yumi.
New York’s Hatzolah service (alternately spelt Hatzalah) is one of the Jewish community’s most famous, originally founded in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the late 60s. The volunteer brigade now services the broader community too, where they have gained a reputation for ultra-fast response times that often beat the wait time for hospital ambulances.
The name Hatzolah comes from the Hebrew word "Lehatsil", meaning, "To save". Melbourne’s Hatzolah responders are on stand-by 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Staffed by a team of volunteers, currently numbering 26 people, the emergency service is free and funded entirely by community donations. The organisation’s mission statement is “to provide a professional, high level of Emergency care, to members of the Jewish Community, in a predefined area, within an efficient timeframe”.
It’s not all about exclusivity either. The highly orthodox community has very specific needs regarding traditions that must be observed, particularly in regard to the worst case scenario where a patient dies.
When Rabbi Mendy Litzman’s similar, though slightly smaller Hatzolah service in Sydney joined with the general NSW Ambulance Volunteer service in 2014, he explained, "our cultural considerations include modesty, Sabbath observance and death and dying.”
"In Jewish law, it's more respectful to leave a deceased Jewish person on the floor rather than put them back in the bed.
"We've been called in the past to assist patients in cardiac arrest. We assist the paramedics and if the patient dies, we pray for them and light a candle."
The Sydney service was founded by Rabbi Litzman in 2006 while the Melbourne Hatzolah service has now been running for over 20 years and both services have since expanded from servicing just the Adass community, to the broader Jewish community and the general community too.
The Hatzolah service has received numerous accolades for this philanthropic work, which is entirely self-funded and free to all - but for Yumi, it’s all in a day’s work.
“Saving a life is like you save a whole world,” says Yumi.
“It doesn't matter which life it is. Jewish or non-Jewish: saving someone's life is a great reward.”