It was 7:05, and I had just finished wrapping up my tefillin. “Shloshim Ve’Chamesh, Nesi’ya” the omnipotent voice of the Magen David Adom dispatcher called. “Yallah!” called Muhammed, my driver. As we entered the ambulance, we got our assignment, “Drive to Umm al-Fahm, woman in labor, urgent.”
We turned on the sirens and the red brake lights of rush hour traffic scurried to make way. We flew through the highway as the sea of cars split in front of us. Ten minutes later, we met the Mobile Intensive Care Unit of Umm al-Fahm whose drivers know how to maneuver through tricky streets of the Arab-Israeli city, most of which lack names. We transfered the young hijab cloaked women into our ambulance, and her sister and mother, all yelling hysterically, hopped in too. The husband, father and extended family trailed behind us in a jeep. The convoy drove off.
Muhammad informed me that we would be driving to Nazareth Hospital, an extra fifteen minute drive from the closest hospital in Afula. “It’s the mother’s choice, and you don’t argue with a woman in labor,” he said.
A minute into the ride the woman had a long contraction. She yelled, which caused her sister to yell as well. Her mother, upfront, wanted to know what was going on. The mother was in the final stage of labor.
I’m going to deliver a baby, I thought. Then it hit me, Oh no! I’m going to deliver a baby!
I spent the last few months of my year in Israel learning Talmud and riding ambulances with Magen David Adom, two vastly different occupations. One is stoic and predictable; the other is wild and dangerous. My mornings were filled with an in depth study of Tractate Shabbat; my nights were filled with car crashes and chronic heart failures. My Talmud skills challenged my Aramaic; my volunteer work challenged my high school level Arabic.
I studied in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, situated on the mountains above the ancient city of Beit Shean. Our Yeshiva was so remote that bus service to the Kibbutz ended 25 years ago and the only way up or down the mountain was by hitchhiking. I spent my days, like many yeshiva students, immersed in personal study and personal improvement. Yet there was always a voice in the back of my mind questioning my self-centeredness. I wanted to get out and experience Israeli society and give back to the country of my birth.
Our training program was an intense two weeks of theory and practice. Over 60 men and women from Venezuela to Belgium flew to Israel to participate in the Yochai Porat Overseas Training Course run by Magen David Adom. The international volunteers would be stationed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashkelon. I requested to be stationed in Afula, an hour away from Yeshiva so I could continue studying. Not surprisingly, I was the first volunteer in years who picked Afula, a city whose only attraction of note is a bus stop used as a breaking point on long bus journeys to the north.
In the first days of the course we learned CPR, back boarding and other basic life support techniques. By the end, we had covered everything from mass casualty response to frostbite (not terribly common in Israel, as you may have guessed). A midterm, final, and practical exam ensured that we had mastered the course. We graduated as Emergency Medical Technicians and received our super-reflective, ultra-cool uniforms.
I returned to Yeshiva ready to combine a lifestyle of learning and lifesaving. I hitchhiked down the mountain before sunrise and then bussed to the Magen David Adom station in Afula, a town of 50,000. The station served the needs of the Jezreel valley, home to kibbutzim, yishuvim and Israeli-Arab villages.
My first dispatch got my adrenaline racing. I sadistically hoped it would be something exciting: a gunshot wound or a CPR. I quickly learned, however, that most shifts involved moving the elderly to and from the hospital. I returned to Yeshiva with disappointing stories.
The next day I again made the long trek down to Afula. It was a quiet morning. The Bnei Sherut, national service men and women, were preparing brunch. The team that day consisted of two high school girls, a national service girl, two Israeli-Arabs completing their national service and a few paramedics. Half way through the brunch we were called with a peculiar set of instructions.
We were to oversee the fire brigade as they battled a wildfire creeping dangerously close to a yishuv. We raced down the highway and followed the smoke trails to our destination. There, communist-era fire trucks teamed up with garden-hose wielding citizens as they tried to put out a large brush fire. We watched and hoped no one would get too close to the leaping flames.
Suddenly, a small plane dove in low and threw fire retardant on the hillside. Then another plane came in and did the same. We watched in amazement as the newly formed Israel Fire-Plane Squadron took out the biggest areas of fire. We returned to base with no casualties but a unique story.
And so the rest of my time spent with Magen David followed a similar storyline: many cases of falling or tripping or chest pain and an occasional incredible case worth calling home about. There was the city drunk we kept picking up, the CPR patient who survived and the skiing accident on the hottest day of the year (on artificial snow). There was the soldier who fainted in Israel’s highly guarded Meggido prison, teenage car accidents, and the thief who broke his ankles when he jumped out the window of a house he robbed.
Serving with Magen David Adom showed me the full spectrum of Israeli society, from the rich and poor, Jew and Arab, religious and secular. We only went into the Arab villages of Dabburiah and Um al-Fahm, dubbed “Dodge City” by my American Paramedic coworker, with police escort. We saw the poorest Russian immigrants who couldn’t speak a word of Hebrew and the richest Kibbutzim.
I slowly began to understand that Israel is a normal country. It has its prostitutes and its rabbis. It has its thieves and dedicated medical workers. But what made Israel special were volunteers: volunteers from Israel high schools and American colleges, volunteers from Canada and the Netherlands. The moral support of international volunteers who dedicated their summers or winter breaks to shlep, shvitz or shiver alongside EMTs and Paramedics meant so much to the patients we treated and the professionals we worked for. And that made the sleepless nights and the blood soaked shirts worth it. Oh, I almost forgot the end of my story:
We wound quickly through the hilly streets of Nazareth. There was no stopping now. The hospital came into sight. We got her out as quickly as possible and rushed her to the overcrowded delivery room. The delivery team was ready before we arrived. We left the yelling mother-to-be and breathed a sigh of relief.
“It takes half a day to clean an ambulance after a delivery,” Muhammad said.