Jewish law does not allow the use of cellphones or tablets during Shabbat and holidays, so Orthodox worshipers switch off their devices before the start of the day of rest and go off to synagogue sans phones.

Jewish law says that to save a life, you must violate the Sabbath. But what happens if an emergency arises in synagogue on Shabbat and nobody there has a phone?

Just before the festival of Passover began last week, thousands of synagogues across Israel received a panic button application that allows users to call for help in emergency situations on Shabbat and holidays.

The new app, installed on tablets issued to synagogues by the “Nedarim Plus” project, features a panic button with the Hebrew word “Hatzalah,” or Help, on it. The button appears on otherwise dormant tablet screens that say Shabbat Shalom or Happy Holiday during Shabbat and holidays.

Screenshot of the panic button home screen developed by Nedarim Plus, United Hatzalah and Magen David Adom (Courtesy)

Screenshot of the panic button home screen developed by Nedarim Plus, United Hatzalah and Magen David Adom (Courtesy)

The “Nedarim Plus” tablets — which have received a rabbinical seal of approval for use by synagogues — are used during the rest of the week to collect membership dues or donations pledged by worshipers as well as to disseminate information and community announcements to synagogue members. The tablets have been adapted to hold only the Nedarim Plus app; they have no internet access.

They are attached to the wall of the synagogue and have a swiping machine on the side to allow for credit card payments.

Making it easier to give

The tablet project was set up a year and a half ago by French immigrant Eliahou Arrouas, a software programmer, to make the collection of synagogue monies more efficient.

“I was fed up with chasing after the synagogue sexton with cash or checks to pay him my synagogue dues,” Arrouas said in a phone interview. “I told him let’s try setting up a system to make things easier for everyone. And that is what I did.”

Synagogue members log into the tablet with their ID number and then can track how much money they owe the synagogue and how much they’ve paid. The sexton can also leave personal messages for each registered member via the tablet.

“We now have some 1,300 customers in Israel and our tablets have made some 320,000 transactions,” Arrouas said.

Building upon that system, Nedarim Plus, working together with United Hatzalah, a network of more than 3,200 volunteer medics on motorbikes, and the Magen David Adom emergency medical service, has developed a system allowing worshipers to call for help should an emergency arise in synagogue. This new feature of the app has also received the rabbinical stamp of approval, Arrouas said.

By pushing the button, synagogue attendees can immediately notify both United Hatzalah and Magen David Adom of an emergency situation occurring in or near the synagogue and request help from the closest responders of both organizations, with the tablet signaling its GPS location.

Once the button is pressed, pre-registered users must identify themselves with their ID — to make sure the call is not a child’s prank — and then can select an icon indicating what kind of emergency is at hand: a case of fainting, choking, chest pains, bleeding or any other emergency, like a terror attack.

Worshipers can also get instructions from a United Hatzalah dispatcher about what to do while they wait for help to arrive.

“The problem that we have come across over Sabbaths and holidays is that people do not carry cellphones and most synagogues no longer have landlines, making it very difficult for people inside to alert emergency services should they require help,” said David Krispel, head of technology at United Hatzalah. “Precious minutes have been lost many times due to this problem. The panic button on the Nedarim Plus tablets is a partial answer to this problem and will help those who attend synagogue get emergency help faster, thus saving lives.”

So far, no emergency calls have been registered via the panic button, Krispel said, but the system has been tested successfully.

The app is currently Hebrew-only but will be soon available in the United States in English as well, said Arrouas.