Prima facie, it may seem somewhat strange for communal rabbis to be entering a discussion concerning emergency response services. After all, one might imagine, this conversation might be better left to members of emergency response services themselves, in conjunction with members of law enforcement, fire departments and our municipal officials.
And yet, if one examines a critical section of the Torah, the parsha of Eglah Arufah, the Torah clearly establishes that rabbinic figures bear responsibility for the welfare of each and every individual in their respective municipalities. As described in that section of the Torah2, the rabbinic authorities are compelled to publicly declare, in the course of the eglah arufah ritual, that they had done everything within their power to ensure the safety and security of the residents of theirs towns and those who merely pass through it. They must, in good conscience, be able to state, “Yadenu lo shafchu et ha-dam ha-zeh, v’eineinu lo ra’u3,” that they had no hand, direct or indirect, in the loss of life in proximity to their community4.
Let me open by clearly stating that I have nothing but the greatest respect for anyone who gives of himself or herself to be involved in emergency service response. No matter how popularized Chazal’s statement, kol ha-mekayem nefesh achat mi’Yisrael ki’ilu kiyem olam maleh,5 has become, it never becomes trite or cliche. In the spirit of the rabbinic mandate to judge everyone favorably, hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’kaf zchut6, I cast no aspersions on the motives or on the sincerity of anyone who has expressed interest in forming an alternative emergency response service within our Teaneck community.
Since a proposal to start an organization under the name Hatzolah of Bergen County first came to my attention this past May 167, I have consulted extensively with township officials, law enforcement and members of the emergency response services, both past and present, to best understand the intricacies of this issue. While I presume to speak for no one other than myself in the space below, it is my strong belief that my sentiments are broadly representative of the consensus view of the rabbanim of Teaneck and Bergenfield, as evidenced by this past Shabbat’s community-wide observance of TVAV and BVAC awareness Shabbatot. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous of me to present that which follows as anything other than the conclusion I personally have drawn concerning this communal matter.
For the reasons presented below, I write in support of our existing structure of emergency response, the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps (TVAC), and against the formation of any separate emergency response organization from within our Orthodox community. In brief, I believe that the formation of an alternative emergency response group may, first and foremost, harm the current emergency response services and thus endanger members of our community; second, materially damage relations between the Orthodox community and the broader community here in Teaneck; third, create a substantial and unnecessary financial burden on a community that can ill afford it.
Let us begin by assessing the current structure in place. In the event of an emergency, one should immediately dial 9118. This call is picked up by the Bergen County Public Safety Operations Center (PSOC) in Mahwah, New Jersey. If this call is being made from a cellular phone, the 911 system is uniquely possessed of the technology to locate the precise origin of the call, a feature that is not available outside of the 911 system. This technological advantage itself, which can save, in the case of choking or cardiac arrest, precious time, militates in favor of the current system, as opposed to an alternative organization that would not have access to this technology.
Subsequently, the professionally trained county dispatcher will immediately notify one of the six posts that are manned 24/7 by Teaneck police officers, who will arrive at the scene of the emergency within an average response time of under two minutes. These police officers are all trained in emergency response and equipped with life-saving materials. Moreover, a TVAC response team with an ambulance will be dispatched to the scene of the emergency with an average response time of under four minutes, more than 50 percent better than the national average.
The adoption of a county dispatch system was not without some controversy, and has served as the primary argument of those who would advocate for the formation of an alternative emergency response service. Their contention is that the additional step of having the county dispatch local officials hinders the ability of emergency responders to arrive at the scene of the emergency in the most expeditious manner possible.
Nevertheless, it seems completely implausible to me, based on conversations with municipal officials, local law-enforcements officials, as well as individuals with decades of experience in emergency response, that any alternative emergency response service could, in a systematic sense, perform any better. If a volunteer for an alternative emergency response service receives a call in the middle of the night, he or she will likely have to get out of bed, get dressed, grab life-saving materials, and only then arrive at the scene of the emergency. The Teaneck police department maintains six geographically spaced posts throughout the town on a 24/7 basis, in addition to two supervisors and a desk lieutenant. They are already in their cars, primed to respond to the emergency. These officers are, by definition, granted red light privileges, which enable them to speed through red lights in the event of an emergency, whereas there is considerable doubt as to whether members of an alternative emergency response service could even obtain blue light privileges, which merely signal to other vehicles to yield. The TVAC crews, stationed at headquarters, will be there with an ambulance immediately thereafter.
Still, one might argue, how could it hurt to have our existing structure, with an alternative emergency response system operating in addition to the current model? Surely, one would imagine, such a system could only improve emergency response within our community. While this line of thinking is perhaps intuitive, I do not believe it is accurate. Currently, TVAC has 130 volunteers to staff its five ambulances. Roughly half of the volunteers, we can proudly say, are from within the observant community. Should an alternative emergency response organization be formed from within the observant community, which would siphon off volunteers from TVAC, there is very good reason to be concerned that TVAC, with fewer personnel, will not be able to continue to function with the exemplary response times it currently provides. As such, we may be left with two mediocre emergency response services instead of the one exemplary one we are blessed with today.
We should all shudder to envision a scenario in which response times increase across the board, both within our community and in the general population, leading to intense recriminations directed against our community. Eizehu chacham? Ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad.9 (Who is wise? He who foresees the future.) While this scenario may take a number of years to develop, it is a distinct possibility. Let us not tread down a path today that will lead us to places none of us would wish to travel tomorrow.
Turning to financial sustainability, the township of Teaneck is permitted by New Jersey state law to contribute a maximum of merely $70,000 toward TVAC’s annual budget, with the remaining $230,000 coming exclusively from donations10. An alternative emergency response organization would be in direct competition for the same sources of funding. Our community, as goes almost without saying, is stretched to its financial limits altogether, and can ill afford investing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in an organization which, at best, would be duplicating services with which we are already blessed. As our Sages derived from last week’s Torah portion, HaTorah chasa al mamonam shel Yisrael11, the Torah was deeply concerned with the financial welfare of the Jewish community. Advocating the support of two emergency response services within Teaneck is simply not consistent with that ethic.
In another scenario, one which I would imagine is far more remote, if the alternative emergency response system would so broadly weaken TVAC that it would cease to function altogether, our community might reasonably expect the negative reaction that would come with having contributed to the destruction of a communal institution that has served Teaneck for nearly 80 years. I seriously doubt whether such a scenario would be consistent with the ethos of Mi she-ruach ha-beriot nocheh hemenu, ruach ha-Makom nochem hemenu12, “He who is pleasing to other people is pleasing to the Almighty.”
Ein chadash tachat ha-shemesh. (There’s nothing new under the sun.) As Mrs. Mollie Fisch, the widow of the first observant TVAC volunteer, the late Rabbi Stanley Fisch of blessed memory, told me, her husband, who joined TVAC in 1976, fought against the formation of an alternative emergency response group from within the Orthodox community decades ago, fearing that it would severely compromise darchei shalom (peaceful relations) between the observant community and the broader community in Teaneck. TVAC stands as a model for harmonious cooperation between the observant community and the broader community in our town. It reflects the value of chaviv adam she-nivra b’tzelem Elokim, the preciousness of all human beings who have been created in the image of God.
To be sure, an alternative emergency response service from within the Orthodox community would, of necessity, look to recruit volunteers from within the local ranks of our community, and, given TVAC’s current composition, present direct competition for volunteers. And, if those who seek to form this alternative emergency response service envision a scenario in which TVAC would eventually rely exclusively on volunteers from outside of the observant community, one could hardly imagine a more divisive communal framework than two competing emergency services, one staffed by the observant community, and one staffed by the general population13.
TVAC leadership, under Rabbi Daniel Senter, the president, and Dr. Eliyahu Cooper, the medical director, have fostered an environment of transparency, professionalism, respect for all human life, kiddush shem Shamayim and an unmistakable message of deracheha darchei noam v’chol netivoteha shalom (it’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace) to the broader community. As both of these individuals have repeatedly made clear to me and my colleagues, they are fully prepared to work hand in hand with individuals, or groups, to enhance the existing framework of emergency response services within our community.
As a community, we would do well to continue to support TVAC and resist the formation, however well-intentioned, of alternative emergency response services, whose capacity to provide the same degree of service is dubious, and whose existence threatens to diminish the capacity of existing emergency response services, create friction in our township and, at a different plane of significance, but one which should not be overlooked, impose substantial and unnecessary financial burdens on our community.
I would like to offer my gratitude to former Mayor Kevie Feit for his generosity of time and spirit in informing me of the issues treated in this article, as well as Deputy Town Manager Dean Kacinzi, whose insights were equally important.
2 Devarim 21:1-9.
3 Devarim 21:7. See Rashi’s comment ad loc., based on Sifrei, Devarim 210:7. See also Rambam, Hilchot Rotzeach U’Shemirat Nefesh 9:3, who shares this understanding.
4 As such, I will intentionally limit the scope of my arguments to Teaneck, where I serve in the rabbinate. While I believe that all of the arguments I will present in favor of supporting TVAC maintain to Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BVAC) as well, I believe it best that the rabbis of Bergenfield make their own determination with respect to emergency services in their community. Moreover, I am deliberately not making any assessment of the advisability of formation of an alternative emergency response service in other townships, such as New Milford, which involve factors beyond the scope of this brief space.
5 Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 11a. See also Rambam’s formulation Rotzeach U’Shemirat Nefesh (1:16), which also presents the inverse statement, that causing the loss of just one life is a destruction of the entire world.
6 Avot 1:6
7 This presentation was made by two representatives of this group who had the opportunity to present their proposal for themselves and take questions from a group of rabbanim who were present.
8 While some have advocated dialing directly to our police department at 201-837-2600, to bypass the county dispatch, that is not the current position of either the township or the police department. As mentioned, only the 911 system allows for a call from a cell phone to be immediately localized. Moreover, as one police lieutenant mentioned to me, in the event of a major catastrophic event there is the possibility that the Teaneck police will not have the sufficient number of phone lines, but the PSOC in Mahwah will never be overloaded.
9 Talmud Bavli Tamid 32a.
10 As a matter of policy, and principle, TVAC has refused to bill for services, out of a concern that those of lesser means would hesitate to contact 911 in the case of an emergency due to a lack of finances.
11 Talmud Bavli Menachot 76b.
12 Avot 3:10.
13 All of this is notwithstanding certain distinct halachic advantages of having both non-Jewish and Jewish members of the emergency response services for Shabbat and Yamim Tovim, even when the endangered life is a Jewish one. See the view of Or Zarua cited by Rema, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 328:12. More broadly, TVAC members have excellent systems in place for providing their services on Shabbat and Yom Tov in a manner that minimizes any activities that would otherwise constitute chillul Shabbat.
By Rabbi Daniel Fridman