ZAKA, an organization of voluntary community emergency response teams, has taken upon itself one of the holiest Jewish tasks; caring for a dead body, referred to as chesed shel meet (true loving kindness). It is regarded as a selfless act since the recipient can never repay the deed. The volunteers understand this but on Thursday, this mitzvah (Torah commandment) came at a heavy price as Israel suffered one of its worst catastrophes as a stampede at a holy site on Thursday night killed at least 44.
David Rose, the director of ZAKA, reported that ZAKA volunteers worked through the night to ensure their holy work was carried out to the best of their abilities but their job became even more difficult. Jewish tradition requires burial as soon as possible after death so many, if not all, of those killed will be buried before the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday.
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Mobile telephone systems became overloaded and were not working. Zaka search and rescue set up an online Google doc form to check on missing persons. They will try to locate any missing person reported via the system.
ZAKA volunteer Haim Spielberg, who took care of the scene said: “This is one of the most difficult disasters I have dealt with during my volunteering for the ZAKA organization. I received a call from ZAKA about a mass casualty incident. When I arrived, I saw dozens of people lying on the floor, having been pushed into a narrow passage. Everywhere, there were cries for help. Medics and paramedics were administering CPR on some of them. There was the smell of death and bereavement in the air as more and more stretchers with lifeless people were carried from the scene.”
He added: “While we were working at the scene, it was so distressing to hear the constant ringing of the cellphones of the deceased. Tears flowed from my eyes when I saw the words Dad or Mum on the phone screen. The rescue and security forces kept removing more and more bodies from the scene. The dozens of ZAKA volunteers, who were already at the scene as part of our regular campaign to help those making the annual pilgrimage to the site, worked throughout the night to clear the scene, reunite loved ones and help identify the victims.”
Haim Weingarten, Special Operations Commander, ZAKA said: “This is a painful and tragic event. The ZAKA Missing Person’s center on Mount Meron, which had been active earlier in the evening re-uniting children separated from their families, immediately became a center for information and to locate missing family members. At the beginning of the incident, dozens of families flocked to the ZAKA headquarters in search of their loved ones who were not answering their phones. It was painful and difficult to see parents and family members in this horrific situation. Dozens of bodies of the deceased were transported by ZAKA vehicles, ambulances and special trucks for further identification and burial.”
Perhaps the deepest moment came when Zaka’s chief officer of the North Rabbi Anshel Friedman led his team in Kaddish, the prayer for the day that praises God.