Though she was just in her early teens, Shani Duskes felt strongly that she must act against injustices perpetrated against the vulnerable.
“She was constantly fighting for the underdog,” said her mother, Sarit Levi. “She was thoughtful, she cared about the world, she had an affinity for people who were weak and was assertive in her opinions.”
But life was unfair to Duskes, who died at age 16 in August, 18 months after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
Levi and Duskes’ father, Marshall, are able now to talk about their daughter and give thanks for a donation made in her memory that they believe she would have approved of.
It came from a longtime family friend and business partner, Marvin Birnbom, who is, in his words, “almost f–king 90,” although no one would guess it from his energy, optimism and sheer chutzpah.
Three years ago, Birnbom discovered United Hatzalah of Israel (UH), a non-profit emergency medical service that operates throughout the Jewish state, while surfing the Internet.
In Duskes’ name, he sponsored one full day of UH’s operations on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Her mother has since gone to UH’s headquarters in Jerusalem to receive a specially designed commemorative album that gives an overview of what that day was like. A total of 2,361 calls were received over those 24 hours, and each is listed in the book according to time, location and type of problem, from chest pains, to accidents, to a suicide attempt.
Duskes and her older sister, Hadar, now 20, were born in Israel, as was Levi. Marshall Duskes, a Montrealer, lived in Israel from 1994 to 2002, and served in the IDF for five years in an anti-terror unit.
The family went to Israel every year and Duskes had a strong attachment to the country.
Levi was already grateful to UH: a few years ago, her brother suffered a cardiac arrest and its paramedics were the first responders. He is well today.
Duskes’ parents describe her as an outstanding student who attended Lindsay Place High School in Pointe Claire, Que. She was a bit introverted, but discovered drama at school and really blossomed when she was on stage, said her mother. When her health no longer allowed that, she switched to working with the crew.
UH has over 5,000 trained volunteers from all walks of life who are on call 24/7, 365 days a year and are dispatched by a control centre in Jerusalem using advanced GPS technology. They travel on equipped “ambucycles” that get through traffic quickly, arriving on scene in an average of 90 seconds in urban areas, in order to provide critical intervention until an ambulance arrives.
The service, which is free and available to everyone, received over 250,000 calls last year, a quarter of which were considered life-threatening.
UH is modelled on the Hatzalah (Hebrew for “rescue”) organizations in large Orthodox Diaspora communities, including Montreal, but is separate. Its volunteers and staff come from all backgrounds, and include non-Jews.
With very limited government support, UH relies on private donations, mostly from abroad, to meet its approximately US$20 million ($26.5 million) annual budget. United Hatzalah Canada, which is based in Toronto, is a recognized charitable organization, but little known in Montreal, something Birnbom, in a totally unofficial capacity, wants to correct, drawing on his decades of experience in marketing.
He retired at 80, selling his U.S.-based surplus industrial parts business to Marshall Duskes’ father, Ted. “I hired Ted when he as 16 to sweep the floors. He became my No. 2 man,” said Birnbom, who regards the Duskes clan as family.
Besides its selfless lifesaving mission, what attracted him to UH was its rigorous management. “Over 90 per cent of its budget goes directly to its services,” he pointed out.
Birnbom is bubbling with more and bigger ideas. He plans to appeal to Steven Spielberg to produce a series of videos on UH. Birnbom thinks it could serve as a model for other countries, showcasing Israel’s know-how and Jewish values.
He’s also tracking down Jewish billionaires. “My wish before I croak is to get Eli Beer (UH’s founder) an endowment big enough so that UH doesn’t have to worry about money,” he said.
To more modest philanthropists, Birnbom’s message is blunt: “Stop sending useless, mindless, unappreciated gifts. Eliminate the brain-busting, mind-boggling chore of deciding what to give and support a wonderful, worthy cause that is extremely efficiently run.”
As for Birnbom’s donation, Marshall Duskes said that, “What is special about Marvin’s gift is that lives were saved in our daughter’s name. Her tremendous spirit has reached across the world.”