ZAKA volunteers aid in the identification of victims of terrorism, road accidents and other disasters, and gather body parts and spilled blood for proper Jewish burial
By Maayan Hoffman
It was July 6, 1989 when Egged bus line No. 405, en route from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, was seized by Palestinian terrorist Abd al-Hadi Ghanim. He attacked the driver, grabbed the steering wheel of the bus and pulled the bus over a steep precipice into a ravine. The vehicle rolled down the depth of the ravine and caught fire, killing 16 civilians.
Students from the Telz-Stone yeshiva who heard the passengers screaming rushed to the scene to administer first aid.
“All the citizens came to help in whatever way they could,” recalled ZAKA CEO David “Duby” Weissenstern. The haredim, seeing that there was so much carnage, stayed by the bus to perform what is known in Hebrew as “chesed shel emet,” which translates as “true act of kindness,” and refers to the Jewish laws of caring for the dead.
One of those haredi students was Yehuda Meshi Zahav, who went on to found ZAKA (and acronym for Zihuy Korbanot Ason, literally disaster victim identification).
That bus attack was the start of a series of terror incidents and tragedies. Zahav, organized a small group of yeshiva students, but quickly realized that when a disaster strikes, police barricade the scene and only allow “official” people access. So, quickly, his team “professionalized” so they could be available to fulfill the commandment of taking care of the dead in these crises.
“I did not know at the moment I was starting an organization,” said Zahav. However, today, there are more than 3,500 ZAKA volunteers in Israel – mostly ultra-Orthodox – and thousands more volunteers in 48 trained ZAKA units around the world. Within 2 hours, ZAKA volunteers were on the scene in Pittsburgh last month to care for the 11 people who were shot dead in the Tree of Life synagogue.
Zahav said he asks himself all the time, “How is this possible? I find myself in Africa, South America – a Jerusalemite who grew up in Mea Shearim (an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood).” He speaks no English.
ZAKA’s care team volunteers in places to which Israelis regularly have no access.
“When you believe in what you do, and you know that you are doing something holy that not everyone can and will do, then you will change the world to achieve that goal,” said Zahav.
For instance, after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, ZAKA combed Thailand in search of 30 Israelis out of the nearly 300,000 dead in order to bring their bodies back to their loved ones for burial.
ZAKA sent a team to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake to find Israeli backpacker Or Asraf, who was killed in the event. They spent two-and-a-half weeks searching for his body and ultimately brought him back to Israel for a proper burial.
In March 2017, when Germanwings flight 4U 9525 crashed in the Alps, ZAKA search and rescue workers climbed the mountains to find the body of Eyal Baum, a 39-year-old businessman from Hod HaSharon. It was Passover eve.
“I used to think what we do is just honoring the dead,” said Zahav. “It is really honoring the living. Do you know what it is like to tell someone we found their loved one and we are bringing him home? The person we found is not alive. He is dead. But the family needs to know that their loved one will receive a proper burial.”
Weissenstern said the Torah puts a strong emphasis on caring for the dead. For example, even a priest, on his way to serve in the Temple, must stop and care for a dead person he sees along the way. Similarly, the Torah teaches that a murderer who is hung on the gallows must be taken down by nightfall and buried the same day, because “all humans are created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elokim, and thus possess dignity and sanctity.”
He said that the soul is housed in the body, the body retains the sanctity it held while alive, even as the soul departs. The deceased is still a person and all respect should be given the person.
Today, however, chesed shel emet is only one of the many mitzvahs that ZAKA volunteers perform. Over the last 30 years, the organization has evolved to touch nearly every aspect of emergency response and care. In other words, the same group of religious people that took upon themselves to deal with the dead in times of crisis, run to save lives in those same situations, Weissenstern said.
“We realized we were already on the scene,” he said. “It was difficult to watch and not help. So slowly, our volunteers started getting trained as emergency responders.”
Soon after, ZAKA started receiving requests to help find a person lost in the desert or who had gone missing on a camping trip. The volunteers would try to help then, too. Ultimately, ZAKA formed a search and rescue team.
Then, in 2001, when the third floor of the four-story Versailles wedding hall in Talpiot, Jerusalem collapsed during the wedding of Keren and Asaf Dror, 23 people fell to their deaths and another 380 people were injured. Many became buried in the rubble. A team of ZAKA volunteers are now trained to deal with such situations, as well.
And finally, in 2009, after 10 Pakistani men attacked the Chabad House in Mumbai, India, ZAKA volunteers realized they needed to have teams around the world, ready and available faster than the Israeli team. ZAKA now has 48 international forces and still sends volunteers from Israel around the world.
The international force is multicultural, trained to handle the task of chesed shel emet “according to his religion and faith,” Weissenstern said. In Israel, too, there are Druze, Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian ZAKA volunteers.
While many of the haredi volunteers speak little or no English – including Weissenstern and Zahav – they have volunteers who speak English, French, Spanish and several other languages.
“We always send at least two people that speak the language of the country,” Weissenstern said about the organization’s international missions.
Zahav was in Japan earlier this year, after a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck the country, killing dozens of people. The ZAKA team was out searching for bodies and serving the injured alongside an Iranian team.
“We looked at each other and we just connected,” Zahav recalled. “They put their Iranian flag by their post, we put an Israeli flag by our post, and we took a picture together. At the end of the day, we worked together to serve food to the Japanese victims.”
Zahav called it a “kiddush Hashem” – sanctifying God’s name and “really putting the best face of Israel forward.”
But why would this group of ultra-Orthodox volunteers – many of them in white shirts and black pants, with long beards – continue to leave their yeshivas and jobs to volunteer under such trying circumstances?
Weissenstern said they are acting out of faith.
“They feel it is a privilege to serve in this way,” said Weissenstern. “The volunteers don’t really know why they do it. They go because it fills their souls. Though our payer is that we are never needed.”