Meet the Volunteers Healing Israel at Hadassah Hospitals
Meira Fruchter Sella, 22, was sure she had the best volunteering job in the world. She passed out the gifts that mothers receive after giving birth in the maternity ward at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus. Each of these moms stops by the narrow supply room on the sixth floor, wheeling her newborn wrapped in pink or blue blankets in a transparent basinet, and chooses from among the car seats, nursing pumps and other gifts, all from the hospital’s Birthing Club.
“Seeing these moms and babies made me happy and took my mind off worrying about my husband,” said Sella, a newlywed from Neve Daniel whose husband, Yinon, left two days after their wedding to serve in an Israel Defense Forces unit stationed in the West Bank.
Their wedding had been scheduled to take place on October 11 with 400 guests in a large hall in Ashdod, but the hall canceled the event because of the frequent rocket attacks. Instead, they had a small wedding that day in Efrat, a town across the road from Neve Daniel, with 80 family and friends.
READ MORE: Israeli Moms Serving on the Home Front
“We were both watching the sky under the outdoor chuppah,” said Sella, who no longer volunteers at the Mount Scopus campus daily but remains on call if help is needed at either Hadassah Mount Scopus or Hadassah Ein Kerem. “Thankfully, no rockets came our way.”
Sella is among the hundreds of volunteers, from teenagers to seniors, both medical professionals and those in unrelated fields, who have offered their help free of charge to Hadassah’s hospitals since October 7. The volunteer efforts come as the Hadassah Medical Organization has been working to serve a country at war, including treating wounded soldiers, providing trauma care for a grief-stricken nation and assisting those who had to evacuate from both the North and South of the country.
There have always been volunteers at HMO, but their numbers increased by 30 to 50 percent after the Hamas terror attacks, said Raya Mizrachi, volunteer coordinator at the Mount Scopus campus. Over 200 people, she said, have signed up at that hospital alone.
More than double that number are registered as volunteers at the larger Ein Kerem campus, according to Talia Hershman, director of Hadassah Ein Kerem’s volunteer services. Those numbers don’t include the countless visitors who show up laden with baskets of home-baked cookies or with musical instruments to perform for patients and staff.
The growth in volunteering echoes the nationwide desire among civilians to come together and contribute to the war effort. Indeed, the often-repeated mantra of the volunteers is “Yachad nenatzeach” (“Together, we will win”).
The volunteers at HMO are there to fill the gaps left by some 360 staff members who have been called up for military service. Still others have, at times, been unable to come to work because of their children’s school closures and other war-related obstacles.
Sella moved back to her parents’ home in Neve Daniel after her husband was called up. Her mother, Jen Fruchter, an administrator for a nonprofit, saw the listing for a volunteer to distribute the Birthing Club gifts on a WhatsApp group. She jumped on it, offering to do the job together with her daughter.
“I had volunteered at the hospital a few years ago,” said Fruchter, “but dropped out because we live a 30-minute drive away. Once the war started, I knew I wanted to reactivate my volunteering.”
Yuval Avivi, from Kiryat Gat, is a third-year occupational therapy student at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Occupational Therapy. When the opening of the school was delayed after the war started, she decided to volunteer five days a week to support the professional staff at the Rehabilitation Center at Mount Scopus. The 26- year-old spends time with the patients, including wounded soldiers and civilians, helping them with the repetitive exercises needed to regain coordination and full motion in their limbs.
“When I sit with a patient, it encourages them and makes exercising easier, like having a private trainer,” she said. “It’s emotional for me working with the wounded soldiers. They’re used to being strong and independent, and suddenly they’re working hard to do the exercises. I leave the hospital every day knowing I have made their days a little better.”
Back at the Ein Kerem campus, Tamar Segal is a second-year nursing school student who volunteers in the gynecology department, where she did her post-high school National Service two years ago.
“Since I’m familiar with the hospital, I can be really helpful,” the 22- year-old said. In addition to taking vitals, preparing the medical carts and checking supplies, she runs errands. “I go to the pharmacy to get medications, bring machines to the engineers to be repaired and make sure there is enough hand sanitizer,” she said. “I also take women down to the delivery room, but I don’t consider that an errand because it’s dealing with a patient—and that is a privilege.”
Both Avivi and Segal are students in medical fields who can be integrated easily into the medical teams. But Hana Wolff and Eliana Haddad, both 22, are, respectively, students in management and computer science. They have volunteered in the Mount Scopus kitchen, where they chop giant piles of tomatoes and cucumbers for Israeli salad as well as help with other food preparation.
“When the war started, we felt it our duty to help,” said Wolff. “A friend’s father works here, and we heard they were short-handed, so we came in, got our aprons and started to work.”
“In addition to being sous chefs,” said Haddad, “we got the carts ready to deliver food to the patients. You’d be surprised how satisfying it is to make sure patients get their food in an aesthetic way and on-time.”
Other students, including a large group of local Bnei Akiva youth movement teens, have taken up brooms and used sponja—those quintessential Israeli floor-washing sticks—to mop the floors, filling in for absent members of the cleaning crew.
Volunteers also came from abroad. Massada Hacker, an Israeli neonatal nurse living in Potomac, Md., whose husband serves in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., flew to Israel for several weeks immediately after the war started. She came to Hadassah Ein Kerem in time to assist with preparations to secure the hospital campus for the war. “I arrived just as the NICU was being transferred from the sixth floor in the Bloomberg Mother and Child building to the pre-op area in the underground operating room, making the most vulnerable newborns safe,” said Hacker, who had worked at HMO before her move to the United States in early 2023. “The staff was glad to have an extra set of hands, and I was going crazy in America not being able to help.”
According to HMO Director-General Dr. Yoram Weiss, more than 200 doctors from abroad have offered to fill in for mobilized medical personnel. “Hadassah department heads and our human resources team carefully screen all inquiries and are continually assessing the needs of each department. Additionally, each volunteer registers with the Israeli Ministry of Health,” he explained. “We are committed to integrating volunteers only where it is mutually beneficial for both the hospital and the medical volunteers.”
So far, 15 doctors whose specialties are needed and who have a working knowledge of Hebrew have joined the staff as volunteers. The others have been placed on a list arranged by specialty and may be called as the war continues and the medical center’s needs change.
Among those who have done a stint is Dr. Jason Brookman, 48, an anesthesiologist from Silver Spring, Md., who works in the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland. At Hadassah Ein Kerem, where he volunteered for a week in October, he took part in war-related surgeries, including on several Israeli soldiers hurt in battle. “The actual work was close to what I do at home,” he said, except the wounds were from high-velocity projectiles at close range, which caused more tissue damage.
Dr. Brookman said that during his time at Hadassah, he was inspired by the close relations among Jews, Muslims and Christians on staff. “Even with a war going on and everyone tense,” he said, “politics always stayed outside. The appreciation I received from the staff for coming from abroad to volunteer was really moving. I felt so proud as a Jew to contribute.”
Hadassah On Call, Hadassah’s premier podcast, helps decode today’s top developments in medicine, from new treatments to tips for staying healthy. In each episode, journalist Maayan Hoffman, a third-generation Hadassah member, interviews one of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s top doctors, nurses or medical innovators.
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Dr. Paul Weinberg, another anesthesiologist who volunteered at Hadassah Ein Kerem, works at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y. He said he came to HMO out of a hakarat hatov, a sense of gratefulness. “For 75 years, we Jews in the Diaspora enjoyed a strong Israel having our backs, and I’m grateful,” he said, noting that his mother was in Auschwitz and his father served in the United States Army during World War II. “I am grateful to Israel, and particularly to Hadassah, where both my wife and I were patients when we were in a car accident in Israel several years ago. We received care that was second to none in the world, including the United States.”
In addition to the many registered volunteers, every day, numerous groups of young musicians show up to lift the spirits of both patients and staff. An eight-girl troupe of singers and guitar-players from Kiryat Arba High School brought a broad smile one day to the face of a Golani infantry soldier recovering from
multiple gunshot wounds.
Among these musical volunteers are professionals. One day, famed Park Avenue Synagogue Cantor Azi Schwartz, accompanied by IDF Cantor Shai Abramson, sang “Adon Olam” in a room on the fifth floor Orthopedics Department in Hadassah Ein Kerem. They succeeded in getting a wounded soldier who had fought for six hours with his arm in a self-made sling to sing along. On another day, the popular Israeli singer Sagiv Cohen set up his band in the atrium of the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower, adding patriotic songs to his typical repertoire of romantic ballads.
Short-handed as they are, the staff members themselves have taken on extra shifts and new missions. Among them are the mental health professionals who regularly visit evacuees from the South and North at the hotels near the Dead Sea and around Jerusalem where they are staying. Psychologists have also been putting in extra hours, seeing patients with untreated or lingering trauma.
In addition, 23 dentists from the Hebrew University-Hadassah Faculty of Dental Medicine have volunteered in the efforts to identify the disfigured and burnt remains of victims of the October 7 massacre. Dr. Essi Sharon-Sagie, who heads the Oral Rehabilitation department on the Ein Kerem campus, is a regular volunteer for the Israel Police identification unit, which is tasked with that job.
“We have never before faced a challenge of this magnitude,“ she said. “Matching up the dental records, some from long ago, is tough, but we keep at it. I know that this is a national mission of the highest importance, so I find I have the strength, together with the remarkable team of volunteers.”
When Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Hadassah Ein Kerem in mid-October, he not only spent time with patients and medical staff but also took a moment to express how impressed he was by the volunteers. “You see the spirit of volunteering, a mosaic of Israeli society in the hallways,” he said. “I support and wish strength to the entire Israeli medical establishment, a source of national pride.”
Barbara Sofer, an award-winning journalist and author, is Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.