Jerusalem, July 6, 2016–Two weeks ago, the lone Jewish EMT in the East Jerusalem chapter of United Hatzalah raced across the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Qadum as he got one of the emergency medical calls that he has become accustomed to receiving. In under three minutes, he arrived at the home of an Arab woman, a resident of the area, and began to treat her for a severe allergic reaction. He was later joined by members of the chapter’s ambucycle unit, his fellow EMTs and paramedics, all of whom are Arab.
While some may be familiar with the 300 Arab volunteers of United Hatzalah working within the larger Jewish organization, this is the story of the lone Jewish EMT volunteer in the Arab chapter of east Jerusalem.
Josh Wander lives in Ma’ale Zeitim, a gated community atop the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem. From there he goes out to answer calls of those in need and suffering medical emergencies in the surrounding neighborhoods including the many Arabs who live in the neighboring communities.
Wander is an immigrant from Pittsburgh, PA, where he was the Republican nominee for mayor. He lives with his family in the close-knit community because he and his wife, Tali, felt that it was the best place to raise their children.
During an interview he conducted shortly after moving to the neighborhood, Wander told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “We live in what would be considered one of the more contentious areas of the country, but it’s all a matter of tolerance. People would say, ‘Don’t you think it’s dangerous to live here?’ I joke, ‘It’s not as dangerous as being a Republican in Pittsburgh.’”
During a recent conversation, Wander spoke about his experiences with United Hatzalah, and how appreciative he was of the opportunity to work as a volunteer EMT in a neighborhood where such a thing can really make a difference.
“Many of the calls that I’m called out on have to do with some sort of conflict, whether it’s due to terrorism or some sort of skirmish in the local population. There are times when my own security has to come first, and I cannot go to an emergency scene because my own life would be threatened by going there, but when I can help, I feel that I can make a double impact, medically as well as culturally.”
Being the only Jewish member of his chapter might stick out in a different organization, but in United Hatzalah it is business as usual. “The Arab volunteers in our chapter treat me professionally despite coming from a different background and heritage. In addition to the other medics, the residents of the Arab neighborhoods treat me with respect when I arrive at a scene. I wouldn’t say they necessarily appreciate the fact that I am Jewish and living here, but they appreciate that I came to help save lives.”
Wander said that he has never been attacked by the people who have called him for help. “A few times I have been attacked by the local population while trying to get to the scene of the emergency, but never by the people who have called for help,” he said.
Josh got involved in the field of EMS during his first stint in Israel during the late 90’s, before he moved back to Pittsburgh. “I was the online editor for the Jerusalem Post at the time, and there were a lot of bus bombings. We were often sending reporters out to the scene of terror attacks and the reporters were among the first people on scene. What struck me as odd was that while they were able to report about what was happening, they were not able to help the injured.”
Wander said that the situation did not sit well with him. “I thought that this was a terrible injustice, that we could report but we were unable to help the injured. I took a basic 80-hour course, and I began to get involved. Over the next 20 years I was involved on and off in emergency medical response, but never to the level of which I am now.”
There was a close connection that helped Wander get back into things when he immigrated to Israel for the second time. “I’ve known Eli Beer, the president and founder of United Hatzalah, for many years. I spoke to him and I took the first refresher course that was available, which was bilingual.”
Amazingly, the cultural divide is not a big problem for Wander when it comes to responding to medical emergencies in east Jerusalem. The biggest problem for Wander is something far more logistically oriented–the lack of proper street signs in that part of the city. “It is the biggest challenge when trying to arrive at the scene of a medical emergency. East Jerusalem has a severe lack of proper street signs and street numbering. When trying to find an exact location of a medical emergency, it can be next to impossible without those guiding directions. Luckily, as a United Hatzalah responder, I have the LifeCompass application on my phone that shows me exactly where the emergency is located. It is just a matter of getting there. I’ve gotten to know the back roads and all of the backways in order arrive at emergencies.”
Regarding his work with Arab volunteers of the East Jerusalem chapter of United Hatzalah, Wander described his relationships with them as “close.” “I’ve formed a close relationship with the Arab volunteers in the chapter. I think our working together, and our work in general, makes a bigger impact here on the eastern side of Jerusalem than it does in other places.”
One of the reasons for Wander’s sense of accomplishment is the logistical issue that ambulances face, which causes them to take far longer to respond to emergencies on the eastern side of the city than they do in other places. “Safety is always one of the paramount concerns for first responders, especially in the eastern side of the city. Ambulances are required to wait for a security escort before they enter into the neighborhoods. The time they spend waiting for the escort is time that the patient is waiting for treatment. This is extra time in which a United Hatzalah volunteer who lives in the neighborhood here can provide treatment for a patient before the ambulance arrives. These vital minutes make a huge difference in the fight between life and death,” Wander explained.
Wander added that the efforts of the chapter and the organization do not go unnoticed. “The majority of people in the communities here in east Jerusalem are appreciative of our work. Many people choose to call United Hatzalah, as we have a faster response time than the ambulances. In addition, having an EMT or paramedic on the scene in under three minutes, to provide treatment and reassure the patient and their family, is greatly appreciated here. It provides a great feeling to know that you can help someone and, at the same time, perhaps bridge a cultural gap between two peoples that don’t always see eye to eye.” v