Magen David Adom, abbreviation MDA, is the State of Israel’s national emergency medical, disaster, ambulance and blood bank services. The name means, Magen=Shield of David, Red=Adom. Since June 2006, Magen David Adom has been officially recognized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as the national aid society of the State of Israel under the Geneva Conventions, and a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Unlike in most countries, the government of Israel does not fund the MDA operations. Most of the organization’s funding come from donations, the large portion from AFMDA (American Friends of MDA), a not for profit organization that operates from coast to coast USA.
Magen David Adom is mainly staffed by volunteers, and has over 10,000 people volunteering over one million man-hours per year. The minimum age to join Magen David Adom’s basic first aid course and become a volunteer is 15-year-old.
Since 2001, international volunteers, aged 18 and over, have the opportunity to come to Israel for a two-month MDA Overseas Program in Memory of Yochai Porat. Initially the programme was financially supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel and as of recently has been taken over by the Israel Experience organization, which also offers programs for Jewish youths on Birthright Israel trips.
The program is named after Yochai Porat, its founder and first coordinator, who, on March 3, 2002, was killed by a sniper while on reserve duty as a combat medic in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). All volunteers pass a 60-hour (during ten days period) course that covers a wide range of topics ranging from common medical conditions and trauma situations to mass casualty events. Those who pass the course are then dispatched throughout the country and work with local volunteers in ambulances to provide initial medical care on the regular and Mobile Intensive Care Ambulances.
Bassie, a 24-year-old religious individual, the daughter of a rabbi, does not like to spend meaningless time; she has to be busy doing whatever is of much interest to her. Every summer’s vacation Bassie looks for an opportunity that will challenge her curiosity.
Two years ago a close friend heard about the MDA Overseas Program [in English]. Since Bassie liked the biology subject at school and she is a people person, the two decided to join the programme. Circumstances held Bassie back while her friend went on to Israel, passed the course, volunteered with MDA for 5 weeks and came back as Bassie saw it, ‘ON a HIGH.’ What Bassie missed that summer and what her friend experienced set heavily in her conscious mind.
This summer, 2018, when Bassie found herself between segments of life headway, she decided to catch up on what she missed two years ago. Being in beautiful Israel, learning a skill, helping people and getting the inside scoop of life in Israel and the Israeli people was her summer objective.
I sat with Bassie, who just returned back from Israel, to hear about her MDA experience.
Setting Up for the Programme
I am told that the programme, this summer had 84 participants from all over the world, is by far not inexpensive and for which Bassie saved for one full year. The application requisites are extensive, among which, i.e., filling a detailed application for a small fee, issue Letter of Intent (LOI), submitting letter of recommendation and a phone interview. It is a programme that requires of the participants responsibility and independence, i.e. finding accommodation for the 5 weeks volunteering period, being on time for the shift schedule one signed for, and seeing to food and all other sundry needs.
After completing the preparatory course, Bassie was assigned to work in Petach Tikva, 14 miles driving distance from Tel Aviv; she stayed in Beit Leni hostel, in Tel Aviv, located, 5 minute walking distance to the beach, 10 minutes walking distance to the famous authentic Tel Aviv open market-Shuk Ha’Carmel and close-by to a wonderful Chabad Center where she attended services.
That meant, getting up each day, in the early morning hours, and taking the bus to Petach Tikva, over one hour ride.
The High Notes of the Programme
Remember, Bassie’s friend came back ‘on a high’? Now it is clear to Bassie why.
“Every day was exciting and spontaneous,” Bassie told me. “Being on the bus each day was an unforgettable experience; seeing the people in Israel from close by, as one of them, not as a tourist, was meaningful. Each day was about having a good time in between the seriousness of the calls to duty,” she goes on.
Almost every day there was another ambulance driver – some spoke English and some did not – with whom Bassie rode for 8 hours each day and each driver had his own shtick. Bassie smiles when she remembers some of those shticks: one driver had the music blasting in the ambulance, another liked no music while another used to spray air-freshener so all over so that the ambulance smells good. Then there was the driver who always had yummy bourekas – Israeli snacks made from either phyllo dough or puff pastry, with various fillings – in the ambulance so no one gets hungry. Some drivers showed anxiousness and some were totally relaxed, some rushed to the scene some drove at ease, knowing they will get to the destination no matter what. But the fact that you spend eight hours together means you get to know about the person, you get that human connection that makes you part of a team. It is the underline that connects the participants forever, a connection Bassie will revere as she goes on with her life.
Being inside the hustle and bustle of a hospital and learning how a hospital works, being present in the trauma center, was a significant experience for Bassie.
Because of what you intimately do together, getting to know new people you are working with and making friends, having a genuine camaraderie, is a large part of the programme. Bassie made lifelong friendship with two young lady participants, one from London and one from Mexico and the WhatsApp is working overtime between the three.
Being more religious than most of the other participants, though pleasantly surprised, Bassie always had company to light the Shabbat candles on Friday evening. That meant a lot. But there were those dashes to the beach, attending a concert that left wonderful memories while impressively the group’s members always made sure that everyone is included in every activity that took place away from the work frame.
I asked Bassie, “Will you do it again?”
She replied: “I do not know; but if I will, for many reasons it will certainly not be right away. For one, I do not want to be disappointed if the second round will not be as good as the first one and right now my expectations are high. If, in the future, I do repeat this experience, I will need to separate the first one from the second one; each experience must stand on its own. However, as a person who needs structure, this experience has definitely instilled structure perspective in me and made me think about pursuing a career in the medical field.”
On one of her social media posts Bassie wrote: “stepping into the zone to save lives, one day at the time.” Bassie took a pause in her own life and gained a new beginning; she gained a fresh and different reality of life’s facets.
I write this story hoping that it will entice other young people, Jews and non-Jews – to evade a vapid holiday pastime and come to Israel to experience fulfilling, full of accomplishment, exciting and life-guiding programme, no other country offers. This is also Bassie’s message to her peers.
Furthermore, to inculcate structure in one’s life and the spirit of volunteering and donating to a worthy lifesaving cause, meaning, take time to volunteer and serve in Magen David Adom.