The New Minutemen: Scooters Saving Lives

These are not your domesticated American house Jews. They're what Americans used to be, what our Ur-myths tell: settlers, frontiersmen, Manifest Destiny, one nation under Yahweh. Fearless but shy, they smile like gunslingers. They're rude, swaggering, cheerful, egalitarian underdogs, and at some level of bumper-sticker brain-rot, we hate them for it.

Meet the New Minutemen.

"We are surrounded by enemies all the time, who have missiles aimed at us," said Yisrael Rosset over platters full of pickles and chopped salad, bagels and salted fish. "Israel is the hard nucleus of the world."

I met Rosset when he chugged up to my hotel on his ZAKA emergency scooter, look-ing like the Fiddler on the Roof in a flip-face helmet.

I was ready for him, maybe. My black Harley-Davidson Dyna Street Bob was fueled and carried water bottles in its saddlebags. Bumping off the curb, I shadowed Rosset through evening traffic. He paddled cautiously along in his black knee-socks as traffic blared past us on both sides.

"ZAKA-Identification, Extraction and Rescue-True Kindness" wasn't so much founded as assembled ad hoc. Following a carnage-bespattered 1989 terrorist attack, nearby Orthodox Jews followed their rabbi's directives to gather, honor and return all human remains from the site. As the Palestinian intifada stacked bodies around the country, they coalesced into an organization unique in the world: Wielding plastic bags, spatulas and towels, ZAKA volunteers literally pick up the pieces of life's unexpected endings.

Logging well over a million volunteer hours per year, they operate in every Israeli police district and several countries around the world. Their example of even-handed veneration-returning even the remains of suicide bombers-earns ZAKA cross-cultural respect in the tinderbox of the Middle East.

Street shorthand is "Nokia connects you; ZAKA collects you," but during the al-Aqsa intifada they expanded their toolkit to pack bandages along with their body bags. When they formed a Rapid Response Motorcycle Unit in 2001, Rosset was among the first to apply.

Sedately meandering toward his flat in a north Tel Aviv suburb, Rosset suddenly slapped a hand to his ear and wobbled to the curb, punching responses into his MIRS satellite communicator. Before I even got my emergency winkers operating, Rosset burned a screaming "U" across the Ha Ta'arucha Bridge, bubble-light blazing.

Game on, then.

With Israel's nationally integrated emergency dispatch, a call to one is a call to all. Besides, Dreamsicle-orange scooter and archaic buckle-shoes notwithstanding, Rosset is one fast old man.

With Rosset's siren wailing and blipping like a clocksprung metronome, we slashed through HaYarkon traffic like Moses parting the Reed Sea. Jumping a curb near Shlomo Lahat Promenade, we snaked our mounts down brick walkways to a segregated Haredi beach where ultra-Orthodox bathers had dialed for aid after dragging a boy out of the surf. Just far enough past his bar mitzvah to swim with men, the kid was nearly drowned by the stormy waves busting against the breakwater.

Israelis devised the innovative one-handed pressure bandages we all tried to score for our vehicles in Iraq. The respirator, defibrillator and epinephrine in Rosset's scooter box also put U.S. combat lifesaver bags to shame. Hopping off his scooter, Yisrael grabbed an O2 bottle and his jump-start kit and shouldered through the crowd, face shield up and locked.

Response time from call to attendance: 2 minutes flat.

The swimmer crowd gathered for a golf clap as Rosset carefully repacked his top box. Just as we got turned around to leave, Magen David Adom's ambulance pulled up. Bucking moderate traffic, the crew's response time was 10 minutes.

When breathing stops, it's a 4-minute trip to irreversible brain damage.

We tootled cautiously on to Rosset's flat, where he calmly sliced up our dinner. "I am cooker," he bellowed happily from the galley-style kitchen.

An uncommon man even in this uncommon country, Rosset answers several calls each month on his Honda Silver Wing maxi-scooter. He attends regular refresher training with the national ambulance service, and is a major in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Despite the lifelong work exemption given to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, Rosset also holds a day job managing the largest cemetery in Israel. He manages all this with a balance of reverence and corny humor.

"I'm the mayor," he said of the cemetery, "and I never get any complaints from the citizens!"

Then he unfolded a scrapbook and showed a snapshot of his IDF unit, taken just before a mass casualty evacuation performed under fire in Gaza. They took the picture because they didn't expect they would all come back.

Everyone is smiling.

Three languages of laughter poured out into the warm night air as we talked for hours about city riding, army service, middle age (we're a few months apart) and our names: "Yisrael" is analogous to "Jakov," which is close to "Jack"-and in Hebrew, "jack" means "kickstand." Rosset's lovely mother-in-law explained how her parents charmed their way out of Nazi Germany by posing as Episcopalians. An inveterate roundballer, Rosset was crushed to hear of the Sonics abandoning Seattle.

Although otherwise dissimilar to Tel Aviv's ongoing party by a millennium or five, Jerusalem also is thick with New Minutemen. I rode to the Jerusalem headquarters of Magen David Adom, Israel's state-affiliated ambulance service, near the highway's entry to that city on a hill. Facing a small Arab town across the Seam Line gully, the building has only gun-slit windows well above head level to reduce the chance of successful potshots. Safe in the basement, connected by fat snarls of hasty rewiring, MDA's tactical center coordinates EMS calls for multiple agencies.

Michael Iflah has responded to MDA emergency calls for more than 10 years, moving to a scooter two years ago. Now he proudly rides a Piaggio MP3, which he said rides like a regular bike, "but if you have oil in the road, you don't fall every time."

The Harley I was on found oil patches all over Jerusalem streets, not to mention the oil-based paint slathered onto every crosswalk and lane-line. Jerusalem is so skittery that even walking over the ancient stone of the Old City can be treacherous. Three wheels good; two legs bad!

Also important, skipping sidestand deployment cuts 20 seconds off Iflah's response time. A surprising number of Israelis think this way. After nearly 6000 years of fighting for cultural survival, that Jew Minuteman gene is bred in the bone-and shared across Semitic cultures. Both Qu-uran and Talmud explicate the point: To save one life is to save the whole world.

MDA's Jonathon Feldstein recounted the time a nearby yeshiva full of Orthodox boys was shot up by terrorists. The first responder on the scene-who had to return fire with his sidearm while treating his patients-was an Arab medic.

In the north, both ZAKA and MDA employ full units of Druze responders. Arab doctors serve in Israeli hospitals, and MDA sends ambulances to retrieve the sick from Gaza.

"The best coexistence of Arabs and Jews," Feldstein said, "is in hospitals."

Israel has a six-day work week-unless you're a medic. Then you're on call every day.

"Except Purim," Iflah reminded me. "You have to drink at Purim."

ZAKA's moto medics ride to more than 16,000 incidents per year, saving hundreds of lives and palliating thousands of injuries. Iflah himself has rendered CPR about 300 times and delivered a dozen babies, but even the saltiest moto-medics suffer occasional miscues. Shortly after he was issued new Spidi Air Bag armor, Iflah jumped off his Piaggio and forgot to un-tether his jacket.

There was a loud pop.

Iflah grinned. "Suddenly, I was so beeg!" He waddled in like the Michelin Man and calmly resuscitated his patient, an Arab shopkeeper who collapsed at home after Jumu'ah prayers.

"I'm going to the call and I'm not caring if he's religious or what color," said Iflah, himself Haredi Orthodox, "only if he's human being. I like helping people."

Not every patient is saved, and some days aren't so funny.

"Some things are not depending on me," Iflah said. "Some things are for God."

Down in the parking lot, my Harley was a swarming anthill of Haredi boys, sidelocks just starting to curl. Conspiring to corrupt their tender futures, I let them scrap over who got to twist the throttle and make the black beast roar, while Iflah showed them his medical kit.

A few blocks from MDA sits the headquarters of United Hatzalah, originally founded in the USA to access New York's Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods.

Pikuach nefesh is the Torah's commandment to put everything aside to save a human life-not an Israeli life, but any life. At the risk of their skins, both Hatzalah and ZAKA volunteers rendered aid at the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Because no good deed goes unpunished, Jewish aid service in New York fed Internet rumors of an Israeli conspiracy to destroy Islam's good name. ZAKA also assisted after the explosion of our space shuttle Columbia, possibly indicating the presence of strategic Israeli space lasers...

Matan Nitzky made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) from St. Louis in 1996. He studies at yeshiva, rides for Hatzalah and carries only an Israeli passport.

"This is the Jewish home state," he said, echoing a familiar theme. "This is the only place on earth where I don't have to feel like a second-class citizen."

David Dahan, a frosty-cool Moroccan Jew who blatted up on a chrome-encrusted, 1800cc Honda, said every day riding the streets of Jerusalem was an adventure. A computer tech, Dahan never pauses for apologies when running off his job.

"It's 24/7," he said, "not 24/6."

Their boss, Hatzalah bike captain Zeev Sofer, is a native-born Israeli who logs about 600 miles a week on his kitted Suzuki V-Strom. What drives him?

"My bike," Sofer grinned, explaining that lifesaving motivates him but he dreamed of motorcycles since he was a kid.

Didn't we all? But while I remember biking to the Grand Canyon, through green river valleys and over the Continental Divide, Sofer's scrapbook rides have been to terrorist attacks, a wedding-hall collapse and a 3-year-old girl hit by a bus.

Stoically, Sofer disclaims bad dreams. "It's part of my daily life."

"We jump in; we jump out," said Dahan, claiming his heart was protected by "Israeli armor."

"Otherwise," Matan said, "we wouldn't be able to continue."

The famous Israeli smiles turned rueful while each rider reached for words.

"Our wives know," Sofer finally said, "that if we have to hug the kids a bit more, we've had a hard day."

Riding for ZAKA's Jerusalem office, Shimi Grossman averages 80 calls per month and he's not slowing down. A realtor by trade and a hyperkinetic exclamation point by nature, Grossman explained (more with hands than voice) why he never turns off his pager, shrugs off his medic jacket or leaves his helmet behind. One morning, the omnipresent MIRS directed him to a neighboring house to find a friend crushed under a fallen wall.

"Femoral artery bleed very fast," he said. "I am there less than 2 minutes. I stop with-what is word?"


"Yes! Tourniquet! And he live! I see him later, and he is walking." Hopping around, Grossman grinned the trademark Israeli smile. "Hospital give him two plastic legs. He go back to hospital and show them, 'Look! Can dance!'

"He is happy. He have reason. Nothing is better than this!"

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.

I wonder why we can't do that here.

In '07, Harley-Davidson offered eight free bikes to New York City for an EMS pilot program and the fire department turned them down flat. "Unsafe," FDNY called it-even as NYPD sewed up a million-dollar purchase from Harley.

Here in the States, we don't have a problem putting police on bikes. But when the payload is ventilators and pressure bandages instead of guns and ticket books, suddenly motorcycles are too dangerous to consider. The opportunity cost is lives-but then, with some 300 million citizens, maybe we just have more lives to spend.

Or maybe we've decided it's more important to fine speeders and escort politicians than to rescue our countrymen.

While you perused this article, an Israeli scooter medic from ZAKA, MDA or Hatzalah cheated Death by cutting the track during rush hour. Back here in the States, somebody's 4 minutes expired while an ambulance driver pounded his steering wheel in frustration, desperately trying to imagine a way through, over, between the lethal gridlock.

Because motorcycles are dangerous.

Lush life along the Levantine: If you've never gotten down with the chosen people, you really don't know what it is to party like there's no tomorrow.
Military Police do all they can to herd traffic so the medics can speed to casualties.
Adopted from IDF Special Forces, the Tomcar cushions two patient litters on long-travel suspension.
After completing an emergency call at the beach, Yisrael Rosset briefs the just-arriving ambulance.
"We're commanded never to put life behind other commandments."-Yehuda Meshi Zahav, ZAKA founder
When bolted to the Honda of United Hatzalah medic David Dahan, loud pipes really do save lives.
From Hatzalah's bat cave, dispatchers track every field unit's position and equipment in real time.
United Hatzalah scooter medic Matan Nitzky is a rescue evangelist: "In Israel, we have more bike medics than anywhere. We could train other countries how to do this properly."
To better serve East Jerusalem, United Hatzalah fields a 40-man team of Arab medics trained to quickly respond to the needs of local residents, tourists, police and soldiers outside Jewish neighborhoods.
You call it a lane line and Californians think it's the passing lane, but the medics of ZAKA, United Hatzalah and Magen David Adom see that slot as a lifeline.
No wonder so many Israelis describe themselves as "a nervous people." Where else in the world might you inadvertently ride a Hog through a camel crossing in a free-fire zone?