Simcha Wenger was at his Montreal synagogue when he got the call: come quickly, a man in his 30s is choking.
Wenger and a group of fellow worshippers hopped in a car and were at the nearby home in minutes.
The man was, in fact, having a heart attack.
In those first crucial moments before paramedics arrived, Wenger grabbed a defibrillator from the car and shocked the man back to life.
Without his care, Wenger believes, the man might not have survived.
"We followed up with him after," Wenger recalled during a recent training session for Hatzoloh Montreal, a Jewish emergency response service.
Volunteers are required to attend a monthly training session, where they learn the latest in emergency response techniques. (Craig Desson/CBC)
"I ended up spending three hours in the hospital."
Wenger, who runs a grocery store on Park Avenue, is one of roughly 80 of the group's volunteers. There are also rabbis, teachers, businessmen — even a magician (he sometimes uses magic tricks to cheer up kids after a scare).
Together, they ensure someone is available 24 hours a day.
"Our response time is generally between two and four minutes. Often that makes the difference between life and death," said Sheldon Goldberg, one of the organization's directors.
One division serves the primarily Hasidic community in the Outremont area. The other services Orthodox Jews in the city's west end, including Côte-des-Neiges, Côte-Saint-Luc and Hampstead.
Not all the calls are so consequential in nature. Volunteers can end up treating anything from a bad fall to heat exhaustion.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women have clearly defined gender roles, and only men currently serve as first responders in the Montreal organization. There is an all-female organization in Brooklyn aimed at better serving women in the community.
In Montreal, a dozen women serve as dispatchers, taking calls from their homes and connecting those in need with a nearby volunteer.
"We have a dispatch centre set up right in my kitchen," said Chany Herzog, who lives in Outremont. She notifies 911, she says, for anything that warrants serious medical attention.
Watch Chany Herzog relay a call from her kitchen:
Hatzoloh dispatcher 0:07
A legal 'grey zone'
The volunteers are trained by paramedics and treat anyone in need, but they are not permitted to transport patients to hospital and, if an injury or illness is serious, Urgences-Santé is contacted right away.
The service operates in a kind of "grey zone," Goldberg said.
The organization is overseen by a medical director and covered by liability insurance, and yet, Golberg stresses, "We're not here to replace Urgences-Santé or the fire department."
"We're here as an adjunct and to offer an extra service to our community to help them in their time of need, to have the best outcome," he said.
"The idea is basically community members trying to help community members."
Stefan Overhoff, a spokesperson for Urgences-Santé, said the service is viewed by paramedics as an asset, not a burden.
"We've been working together for years," he said. "It works well. It's a help to the population."
Hatzolah has two official vehicles, but most of the volunteers use their own cars.
Recently, a Hatzoloh volunteer — Shalom Grunwald, the owner of a bagel shop — was the first at the scene to treat a man who had suffered a seizure. Grunwald gave the man oxygen and kept him stable until Urgences-Santé arrived.
"We don't ask age, sex, religion," Goldberg said.
Shalom Grunwald treated a man with a medical condition near his bagel store until Urgences-Santé arrived. (Chaya CN/Facebook)
Montreal's Hatzoloh service was founded in 1996. It depends on donations from the Jewish community to maintain its supply of medical equipment, such as EpiPens, stretchers and defibrillators.
Wenger said having access to someone from their own community made them feel more at home. If more specialized care is needed, they get it.
"We will tell them when they need to go to the hospital," he said.
The first such service was founded in the late 1960s in Brooklyn, N.Y., as an attempt to improve emergency medical response and address cultural concerns of the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community.
There is a similar organization serving the Jewish community in Toronto and others in countries across the globe — including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.
In Montreal, volunteers must study emergency response textbooks and attend classes, for a combined total of 150 hours. They're then tested, and only those who pass with high marks are allowed to join Hatzoloh.
Yisroel Menkes, who teaches at a Montreal rabbinical school, said he knew he wanted to join Hatzoloh when, as a 12-year-old, he began leafing through his uncle's emergency response booklet. The photos were unsettling — and intriguing.
He remembers thinking, "This is for me. I'm terrified of blood."
Menkes, now a father of six, manages to carve out time for volunteer service and the required monthly training sessions.
"Living in a community, you always want to give back," he said.
Watch the Hatzoloh members in action:
Montreal's Jewish rescue squad 2:22
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