The New Minutemen: Scooters Saving Lives

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson, Alon Tuval, Jack Lewis

Sometimes, even New Minutemen take their pagers off. Grossman only takes his off when overseas. His last two trips-to Thailand after its tsunami and to Haiti for earthquake relief-were vacations only in the sense that he wasn't on call. He was just on duty.

Grossman's devotion isn't unique among ZAKA riders. Four years ago, medic Aaron Gross left his bride standing under the chuppah to resuscitate a heart-attack victim outside the wedding hall, then returned to crush the glass. Despite the MIRS pager on his nightstand, he remains happily married.

On our way to the pizza parlor where ZAKA's scooter arm originated, Grossman took a call for heat prostration in an Orthodox synagogue. Suffice it to say that riding rapidly through Jerusalem gridlock is quite a lot like blasting your bike through Tel Aviv, only with orders of magnitude more roundabouts, oil on the street and obdurate pedestrians in beards and black tailcoats.

Deep in the Orthodox quarter known as Mea Shearim, Yaakov Uri runs a pizza parlor unlike any you've seen. Men and women wait in separate lines at Pizza Uri, and young men without families of their own eat in a separate room. Other than that, it could be a Chicago neighborhood joint: hot, greasy, clamorous, and the pie is angel-kissed. Uri, round-cheeked and smiling, extended his hand much in the manner of a Catholic cardinal. Resisting the urge to kiss his ring, I shook it formally.

"Sit," he said in the gentle wheeze of Brando in The Godfather. "Please, let me serve you."

At a wave of his finger, huge wedges of kosher pizza appeared. He waved me off from eating it until he could personally slather it with a spicy, off-white sauce. Great slices apparently do not require pepperoni.

Wearing six layers of black wool in 90-degree weather doesn't faze Uri, but watching people die while waiting for an ambulance to arrive stopped him cold. What could a pizza restaurateur do? In '01, Uri's simple, perfect inspiration changed the game for EMS in Israel.

"I looked at these," he said, pointing to his delivery scooters, "and I thought we could use them."

Uri emptied out a delivery box, rode across town and pitched his idea to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman and founder of ZAKA and a running buddy of Uri's in

In Jewish tradition, it's a mitzvah or righteous deed to keep Shabbat holy, but a greater mitzvah to honor the dead properly-and the greatest of mitzvot is to preserve human life. ZAKA's speed into action gives them a place at the table for emergency medical response, just as their devotion to skilled handling of the dead makes ZAKA teams a welcome sight around the world.

Underneath the conflicting agendas of socialist ideals, Haredi purism and the dream of Zionism, Israelis are a pragmatic lot. Occupying a nation about twice the size of the county I live in and surrounded by governments sworn to destroy them, they shrug their shoulders and conscript most everyone to military service. Parked on perhaps the only piece of Middle Eastern desert with no oil, and with 7 million Jewish, Palestinian, Bedouin and Druze mouths to feed, they task their engineers with creating the world's biggest desalination plants. To the New Minutemen these are viewed as practical matters, transcending politics.

And when their ambulances can't punch through traffic, they listen to pizza-shop wisdom from the Orthodox Godfather to dispatch medics on two-wheelers. You can't carry litters on scooters, but salt enough of them into the community and you can push a respirator, defibrillator and bale of bandages anywhere in Jerusalem in about 2 minutes.

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