Hugo’s Heroes

An invaluable community service to make our schools safer


By Ilan Preskovsky

There’s probably no one in our Jewish community unfamiliar with Hugo Paluch; no one who wasn’t touched by how this fourteen-year-old boy tragically died from injuries sustained by a freak accident at school or how the community pulled together as one to daven for Hugo and to provide emotional and physical support for his family. It wasn’t just the Johannesburg Jewish community either, as his story has truly gone global – incredibly, so widespread is his impact that a Google search for the name “Hugo” still automatically brings up “Hugo Paluch” as the fourth suggestion.

While many wonderful words have already been said about Hugo, it’s hard to think of a more fitting tribute to the young man who was beloved by so many than a brand new programme launched by Hatzolah that is specifically tailored to ensure that what happened to Hugo never happens again to another child at school or on a school outing – or, at the very least, to have the school properly prepared to deal with any and all major injuries or other health-related issues well before professional paramedics arrive.

Hugo’s Heroes, as the programme is fittingly called, consists of two complementary aspects to ensure that children are as safe as possible while attending any of South Africa’s Jewish day schools. The first aspect involves training two children each from grades ten and eleven (or more in bigger schools) in each Jewish day school in basic first aid – though “basic” might be something of an understatement, as the training is a labour-law and Netcare approved and tested Level-1 first-aid course and is followed by continuous training where the hope is to get each of these students up to a Level-3 first aid by the next year, just as the next batch of grade 10 students join the programme.

The second aspect of Hugo’s Heroes, that very much goes hand-in-hand with the first, is a health and safety course that effectively makes students “another set of eyes” on campus to ensure that there aren’t any health or safety risks on school property and to ensure that any such weak spots are dealt with as quickly and as efficiently as possible. This side of Hugo’s Heroes is, in fact, run by Hugo’s father, Dov Paluch, both as a pre-emptive counterpart to the reactive first-aid course, but also as a way to ensure that Jewish day schools not only meet the legal health and safety requirements that all schools are supposed to follow, but to improve upon these ultimately fairly limited laws.

For the Students and By the Students

Interestingly enough, the programme that was to become Hugo’s Heroes actually was starting to take form about a year before Hugo’s tragic death, as a group of students came to Hatzolah to try and work out a programme that would put the power in student hands to deal with any medical emergencies that might occur on school property.

One of the main instigators of this potential new programme was Yakov Drutman, who is currently in grade 11 at Torah Academy Boys High, but has had a lifelong interest in medicine and first aid. A few years ago, he joined the first aid course that the King David High Schools offer to their students and earned a Level-3 in first aid. Since qualifying, though, he started to become more and more perturbed that the Jewish day schools didn’t offer basic first aid training to even their senior students.

Roughly one and half years ago, Yakov contacted Dr Reuven Jacks at Hatzolah to put a course into place that would teach students from all the different Jewish day schools basic first aid and, though Dr Jacks immediately took to the idea and the Hatzolah board approved it soon after, by the time of Hugo’s accident the programme had only just left its planning stages. After Hugo sadly passed away, Yakov approached Hatzolah’s Alon Crouse at Hugo’s funeral and asked him not only if the programme could be fast-tracked, but if it could be done in Hugo’s name.

With the horrible circumstances surrounding Hugo’s accident as an impetus, Hugo’s Heroes started to quickly turn into what it is now. Dov Paluch admits to being “very touched that these kids wanted to incorporate Hugo’s name into the programme” and was “humbled and proud to associate Hugo’s name with the programme” and he soon came on board to create and oversee the second part of the Hugo’s Heroes programme, that of health and safety. As well as being an incredible tribute to their beloved son, Dov and his wife, Nicole, also saw the programme as a way to give back to a community that had done so much for their family in what was undoubtedly an unimaginably difficult time.

The Course Itself

Both Dov and Alon Crouse are quick to stress that this is very much only the beginning of Hugo’s Heroes and that there are plans afoot to make it an increasingly comprehensive programme, but what is in place already is something of a game-changer. By putting the safety of their schools and the health and safety of their fellow students in their hands, those who have trained with Hugo’s Heroes so far are not only a whole new line of defence against tragedies happening to children at school, but have been empowered tremendously by their new-found and critically important responsibilities. See the sidebar to meet two of Hugo’s Heroes and their thoughts on the programme they were elected to join.

The programme is, it has to be said, very demanding, so the students who have been chosen for this initial phase of Hugo’s Heroes have been chosen, to some degree, on their physical fitness, but mostly by their academic results to ensure that such an intensive programme does not interfere with their school work – which becomes especially pressing for those in grade 11. The first aid course itself is technically “only” Level 1, but as Yakov Drutman puts it: “I did a Level 3 course and, though the course is only officially a Level 1 course, it’s nearly as involved as a Level 3.”

And Yakov would know, as he has helped with the running of the course, along with the likes of Hilly Reuben – who also sourced the equipment needed for the course – and Ashira Sackstein. Others who volunteered their valuable time to help organise the course are Avi Smith, Saul Joseph, and Yehuda Goldberg. It’s because of people like these that the first wave of Hugo’s Heroes has turned out as well as it has.

Beyond the course itself, the teenagers of Hugo’s Heroes are constantly being given new material to learn, and each term comes with a test on what they’ve done so far. The Heroes and Hatzolah remain in close contact through email and Whatsapp groups, and they are constantly working on ways to improve their knowledge and their methodologies, even just by being forwarded articles of breakthroughs in first aid medicine.

The first batch of Hugo’s Heroes have finished their course and are soon to graduate, where they will receive their first aid vests and first aid packs that are kept at their respective schools. They are to be in charge of the health and safety of their schools, including the primary and nursery schools on campus, and even accompany school trips and Shabbatons (where they go and collect a separate first aid pack from Hatzolah so as not to deprive the schools themselves from having it on-hand).

The Future

As noted, this really is only the beginning of Hugo’s Heroes. Their plans certainly don’t stop here. Two of their biggest immediate goals, for example, would certainly take things to even higher levels than they already are now. For a start, Dov wants to take the health and safety side of the programme and expand it to include not only obvious health risks, but to tackle issues like bullying that are health and safety risks too – though perhaps more subtly so.

The other major expansion to the programme that is clearly quite vital is to expand their training beyond the students selected to be Hugo’s Heroes and make sure that all students and, most importantly, teachers, have some knowledge of first aid and that they can all participate in looking out for the health and safety of their schools. Obviously, funds are an issue for all Jewish day schools – especially for the smaller ones – so the roll-out will have to be gradual, but plans are already in place to do so.

It’s also obviously not going to be the case that every child of every age at every school will be given anywhere near the kind of extensive and intensive training that the Hugo’s Heroes students receive, but one of the major end goals of Hugo’s Heroes is to ensure that no student should finish school without some basic knowledge in how to deal with a medical emergency. No less importantly, teachers, who are effectively in charge of your kids while they’re at school, should really know basic first aid.

Both Alon Crouse and Dov Paluch stress that these are not pipe dreams, but are in active development and will hopefully start going into practice as early as the beginning of next year. They are also just as quick to stress that they are still learning as they go on and hope to improve the programme continuously, making it more expansive and more effective at every turn.

All this, of course, relies heavily on the support of the community – which, they are very quick to point out, has been tremendous so far – but as even this early version of Hugo’s Heroes has shown that Hugo Paluch’s, z”l, name looks set to be a banner of crucial community services for many, many more years to come.


To find out more about this amazing project, please visit



Max Maron

Hatzolah is a vital part of our community, providing emergency care to all in need. Their role in our community should never be underplayed or underestimated. Now, through Hatzolah and their new initiative Hugo’s Heroes, scholars like me are given an opportunity to make a significant difference in our community. Getting involved with Hatzolah by assisting them and our schools is such an incredible and helpful way of providing a basic, yet essential service, and giving back to our community. Hugo’s Heroes provides a level of basic first aid that is a necessity for all people to have, whether in school or generally in life. This training allows Hugo’s Heroes to provide assistance at our schools which relieves some of the pressure of “unnecessary” calls. It can also narrow the gap between incident and necessary assistance by reducing the time between call and response. The training, while intense, was extremely enlightening; seeing what it takes to be a responder; being with other learners and all growing together. We learned from our instructors that Hatzolah is not only an organisation, but a family, a family that we are now part of. The instructors showed us that they were extremely committed and passionate about their jobs as responders. I personally look up to all of them and want to thank them all for their services to the community.

Naomi Mazabow

When I volunteered to be one of Hugo’s Heroes, I was a bit unsure of my decision. Was this the way I wanted to spend the last day of my holidays? Would I be able to handle the responsibility? What strengthened my decision was the fact that this course is dedicated to Hugo Paluch. I didn’t know Hugo personally, but from all of the stories that I’ve heard, I feel like I did, and I wanted to do something in his memory. Knowing that I have been given the skills to save a life has given me a sense of responsibility and empowerment. There was also a strong emphasis on prevention through a workshop with Dov Paluch. We were taught in that workshop to look out for the things that cause dangerous situations in the first place. I realised through this workshop how many injuries can be prevented by noticing seemingly small things, eg: tree stumps and nails. The course itself was run brilliantly. The paramedics were enthusiastic, answering all questions in detail and with patience. What struck me after doing the course was how it has defined our community in a way that’s different from other communities: we pull together in times of tragedy and, from the midst of the pain, we build something positive and we make a change. For me, that was the biggest lesson: When something happens, don’t just move on, do something about it, empower others, and make a change.

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