An ambulance used by Hatzalah in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Dozens of branches of Hatzalah emergency medical services, which operate volunteer first responder networks in Jewish communities around the world, collectively raised an unprecedented $15 million from some 83,000 donors last week amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a remarkable statement of the community’s thanks to a group that has helped thousands of lives.

An 18-hour telethon united 47 Hatzalah chapters worldwide in a jam-packed concert with some of the best Jewish musicians in the world. Hatzalah chapters from the United States, Australia, Europe, Canada, Israel, South America and elsewhere were recipients.

“We were giving back,” event producer Davidi Crombie told The Algemeiner, calling the program more than a concert but closer to “a musical journey.” It was streamed around the world.

The talent was deep. The show included Jewish rock group 8th Day and modern Israeli-style singer Gad Elbaz. One of the best-known performers was Avraham Fried, whom the show producer Crombie called “the King of Jewish music.” There was also morning entertainment for children, performed by Uncle Moishy. Mordechai Shapiro, Benny Friedman, Eli Marcus, Shmueli Ungar, Shulem Lemmer and others participated.

The performer Baruch Levine “spoke straight to your soul,” Crombie said.

One of the moving moments was the singing by Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot of Park.East Synagogue, who had recovered from the virus.

Program director Choni Milecki said the key to the success of the event is that it was more than a fundraiser, noting, “Anyone who watched it realized that this was about Jewish unity and Jewish pride.”

Beryl Junik, who co-organized the event with Zalmy Cohen and Shloime Greenwald, attributed the success of the event to a higher authority, saying, “It happened with an outstretched arm from above.”

Crombie praised the three co-chairs and the many others who made the event happen. “It takes a village,” he said.

Milecki said, “Hatzalah workers are there for everybody. They go above and beyond the call of duty. Where do they get the power to do that? The reason a Hatzalah volunteer will interrupt a family meal or get up in the middle of the night is much deeper than service. It has to do with the Jewish soul.”

Milecki said, “We were prepared.” They even brought their own back up electrical generator and an internet truck.

The organizers had people, who were around the globe, tape footage of Lag BaOmer parades, the holiday on which fittingly a plague stopped in the time of Roman-era Rabbi Akiva. This footage was sprinkled in the evening, so that viewers could experience the holiday while watching the Hatzalah-Thon.

Milecki said, “Selflessness is what we learn from these Hatzalah volunteers. They have their radios on by their bedside tables. While they’re sleeping, they’re ready for you. While they’re at a child’s birthday party, they may get an alert.  Their private life is dedicated to helping other people.”

Chaskel Bennett, community leader and Hatzalah volunteer for over 26 years in Flatbush, told The Algemeiner that people felt a sense of comfort and relied on Hatzalah in their most desperate and vulnerable times. “For decades, Hatzalah has not let the community down; on the contrary, through every crisis big and small, the one thing the Jewish community can count on is when they make that call for help, someone is there to answer it,” he said.

Bennett added, “Hatzalah has the privilege of being one of the few communal organizations that unites the entire Jewish community, left, right and center.”

Sam Stern who described himself as “the finance guy,” was the person on stage who updated the audience throughout the event as to how much money was being raised. Stern said, “About 80,000 people took the time to go online and donate to their local Hatzalah. That to me was more impressive than the dollars raised.”

Milecki said, “80,000 people. That’s got to be a record for a Jewish fundraiser.”

Stern said one way that he was able to stay awake was “a lot of coffee.” He pointed out that Hatzalah workers sometimes worked in the middle of the night. “We tried to work with the same energy,” he said.

Stern continued, “I think the key here is everybody across the globe has been affected in one way or another by this pandemic, and anyone in an Orthodox community has witnessed Hatzalah’s dedication, devotion, love, care, compassion and call to duty.”

He added that “when you understand this, you feel the need to stand up and help out.”

“Nothing like this event has ever taken place before and hopefully we never get into a situation like this again that we need to do it under these circumstances,” he said.

Other hosts included the comedians Modi and Yoely Lebovits.

“The whole world is in pain. It was a healing experience for those who watched and those who participated,” said Lebovits.

The organizers transformed a lunch room of a girls’ school in Crown Heights into a vibrant television studio. There were fourteen stages to enable the performers, hosts and bands to completely have social distance from one another. The event was accessed on more than a million devices, said Junik, one of the organizers.

Viewers were encouraged to use a hashtag #IAMHATZALAH whereby their photos would be shown on the bottom of the screen for everyone to see.

Cohen said the event was “something we never experienced before and never could have dreamt what it would become. Nearly everybody said this will never work out in such a short time.” They had only 10 days to plan.

He said, “I felt that Hatzalah didn’t get the proper limelight that it needed to get. These people on a regular daily basis give of themselves, their lives and their family time. Every time they leave their house, they put their family and themselves at risk.”

Cohen said, “It’s one of those organizations that are there for anybody and everyone. They don’t differentiate man or woman, old or young, religious or not religious, Satmar or Chabad, Litvish or Yeshivish. They get a call and they run. They drop everything and run.”

He said, “Many of them have businesses, and to drop everything when another Jew calls is a beautiful thing. You could have a modern Orthodox person helping a Satmar person or vice versa. You don’t often see that in other organizations.”

An example of how Hatzalah members risk their lives comes from Union County, New Jersey. Its members were exposed to the virus when they responded to COVID-19, despite taking preventive measures. They subsequently temporarily shut down.

One who laid his life down for others was Yitzchock Zylberminc, a longtime Hatzolah member in Far Rockaway, who passed away in late March. Zylberminc, 56, had been responding to emergency calls up to three weeks prior to this death and suffered from multiple health issues, according to Yeshiva World News.

Shmuli Kopfstein, who works in corporate travel, helped arrange Shabbat gift packages for the wives of Hatzalah volunteers, who over the past months put themselves in harm’s way.

“The Hatzalah volunteers are unsung heroes,” he said. “The Shabbos gifts began with wine and flowers and expanded to items such as chocolates, artisanal bread, a loaf of fish, as well. They vary each week.”

He added, “Hatzalah volunteers get up at 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning” and at the height of the pandemic they were “literally going from call to call.”

Kopfstein said, “I spoke to a guy who didn’t sleep in three nights.” He mentioned that two Hatzalah volunteers who lived in his building got the virus but recovered.

“I see them run out of the building in the middle of a meal or the middle of the night and I asked, ‘What can I do?’” he recalled, describing the gifts as a “shout out to say, ‘You’re not alone. We greatly appreciate what you’re doing.’”

Kopfstein also helped sponsor an ambulance vehicle outfitted with updated equipment.

The Hatzalah volunteers work despite knowing they are risking their own health. “We must show our appreciation to them,” he said.

Hatzalah was founded in Williamsburg by Rabbi Hershel Weber in the late 1960s. Today there are chapters around the world.

The fundraiser web site sums up the spirit of Hatzalah. It reads, “The world seems more splintered and isolated than ever. But if you look closely, you will see awe-inspiring acts of bravery and unity all around you.”