EMT group pushes to get Holocaust survivors out of the house and vaccinated

United Hatzalah and Claims Conference reaching out to 20,000 homebound, offering to arrange a shot appointment and transport, often with a scenic stop along the way

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

United Hatzalah medics in Nahariya take a Holocaust survivor to the beach, after a trip to a vaccination center. (Courtesy of United Hatzalah)
United Hatzalah medics in Nahariya take a Holocaust survivor to the beach, after a trip to a vaccination center. (Courtesy of United Hatzalah)

After finding that many housebound Holocaust survivors are not getting vaccinated, an Israeli medical organization has teamed up with a survivor restitution group to launch a service to make their appointments and transport them to clinics.

“Lots of survivors haven’t left their homes since last March, or for even longer, and they need help accessing the state’s vaccination process, which is exactly what we’re providing,” Raphael Poch, spokesman for United Hatzalah, told The Times of Israel. “We’re determined to reach out to each and every survivor, ensuring no one gets left behind in the vaccination campaign.”

For some of the survivors, “vaccine day” has become a rare occasion for adventure. Jennifer Attias, a medic in the seaside city of Nahariya, said that ambulance teams there started offering survivors a beach trip on the way home — as it is so rare that they get to leave the house.

In light of the great success of these impromptu trips to the beach, a “beach stop” was to be added to the formal program of the vaccination campaign. Unfortunately, by the time the program launched officially, Israel’s beaches were closed off, due to a large oil slick that reached the coastline, making people sick.

“These people are housebound, many have oxygen, and it’s very rare that they leave, because if they aren’t in an ambulance, they can’t go out,” Attias said. “So we take them get their vaccines and on the way back we take them to the beach, which some have not seen for five years, despite living close.

“We take the ambulance to the sea and it’s very emotional. You see the sparkle in their eyes.”

A Hatzalah spokesperson said vaccinees may get taken on other side trips instead, given the beach closures, though no details about alternatives were available.

United Hatzalah medics take a Holocaust survivor to the beach in Nahariya after a visit to a vaccination center. (Courtesy of United Hatzalah)

Large numbers of Israeli survivors are isolated and have limited knowledge about the vaccination drive. While the state provides the vaccines, welfare authorities do not take an active role in reaching out to homebound Holocaust survivors or providing transportation to them.

So on Sunday, Hatzalah staff started working through a list of some 20,000 housebound survivors, calling them to discuss the vaccine, and offering to make arrangements for them to receive it.

They organize transportation in ambulances, accompanied by medics.

“We feel that these people deserve a special level of care and attention to overcome physical obstacles and trepidation about once again leaving their homes, in order to receive a vaccine, and return towards a sense of normality,” said Poch. “Our dispatchers call them, discuss with them, calm them down, talk about the importance of getting the vaccine, and offer to take care of the practical arrangements.”

Poch said that the phone team is multilingual, speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and French.

“We owe it to those who survived the greatest atrocity that mankind has ever known to provide whatever care and service for them that we can to make their lives a little bit easier,” said Hatzalah founder Eli Beer. “It is a mission that we are proud to undertake.”

Illustrative image: Joseph Zalman Kleinman, 92, a Holocaust survivor, gestures to the arm he prefers to receive the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19, at the Clalit Health Services vaccination center at a sports arena in Jerusalem, January 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The list of survivors came from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which negotiates reparations, restitution, and other compensation claims on behalf of victims. The group has provided NIS 5 million ($1.5 million) in funding for the project.

“The importance of returning Holocaust survivors to their daily and social routine is highly prioritized,” Claims Conference Vice President Shlomo Gur said. “We know that the last year has been particularly difficult and therefore we will do anything we can to put an end to the social distance.”

Even before the launch of Hatzalah’s new project, the organization started receiving calls from survivors asking for help accessing vaccines, which is why the Nahariya beach trips had been possible, even before Sunday’s launch of the national program.

“We’re helping survivors to take their first steps towards a normal life, and it’s very emotional,” said Poch.

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