Defying Political Boundaries in Israel, ZAKA Saves Lives and Gives Dignity to the Dead

December 25, 2015

4 min read

Throughout the recent spate of terror attacks in Israel, volunteers of the Disaster Victim Identification organization, known as Zihui Korbanot Ason (ZAKA), could be seen immediately arriving on scene to administer care to the wounded and assist Israeli police with the removal of the dead.

Established as an auxiliary emergency unit by Israel’s Ministry of Defense in 2005, ZAKA is now an international outfit recognized by the UN. Volunteers are on call 24/7 and must be ready to respond to natural disasters, terror attacks and major accidents within a moments notice.

With their volunteer paramedics and a variety of highly specialized rescue and recovery units, ZAKA is responsible for quickly identifying the dead, collecting human remains and ensuring proper religious burial for the deceased with the utmost dignity.

“ZAKA is unique for several reasons – the number of its volunteers, the diversity of their backgrounds, both religious, and nonreligious, and the fact that they are given multidisciplinary training in first aid, life-saving search and rescue, and are taught how to honor the dead,” explains Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of ZAKA, to Breaking Israel News.

ZAKA volunteers at the scene of the terror attack near the Jaffa Gate on December 23, 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of ZAKA)
ZAKA volunteers at the scene of the terror attack near the Jaffa Gate on December 23, 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of ZAKA)

Based in Jerusalem, ZAKA was originally Meshi-Zahav’s brainchild. The idea came to him after he experienced the mayhem that followed in the aftermath of a terrorist attack which occurred in 1989. Meshi-Zahav recalls the macabre nature of the scene which ensued when a terrorist took control of a bus and steered it off a mountain, calling it a “horrifying and chilling chaos.” Along with some fellow yeshivah students, Meshi-Zahav ran towards the explosion, as opposed to away from it, driven purely by the desire to help others. At the time, it was imperative to him to offer assistance to the wounded and the dead.

At its inception, the organization was originally established to attend to matters dealing with honoring the dead, like collecting severed limbs and creating a centralized morgue during multiple terrorist attacks. Initially, this small group of altruists were solely preoccupied with performing a concept in Judaism known as Chesed Shel Emet (True Virtue).  However, by 1995, Meshi-Zahav and his group of dedicated volunteers had grown and transformed ZAKA into an official rescue and recovery organization. ZAKA now works in close cooperation with Israeli emergency and security forces and are often the first on scene after an attack, administering first aid.

ZAKA stands as a stellar example of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (correcting the world). The organization has expanded to such a great extent that it has managed to acquire advanced technologies that have immensely increased its capabilities. ZAKA now has search and rescue teams which include ATV’s, canines and divers. They have also set up two large outfits, a joint ZAKA-IDF Unit, which responds to mass casualty incidents during times of war as well as an International Rescue Unit, which offers safety drills to Jewish communities who wish to be prepared in the event of a national disaster.

This former unit was called into action recently after the terror attacks in Paris. A two day drill was organized in Belgium in response to the growing anxiety permeating the Jewish community in Europe.

Meshi-Zahav believes that the urge to save lives and give dignity to the dead is a sacred calling which defies political boundaries. The founder of ZAKA turned this belief into a tangible reality when in 2010 he set up units in remote Bedouin and Druze communities in the north and south of Israel. Volunteers who signed up hailed from those areas and were trained to operate in accordance with their own religious and ethnic customs.

ZAKA volunteers help in search efforts at Germanwings crash site. (Photo: ZAKA)
ZAKA volunteers help in search efforts at Germanwings crash site. (Photo: ZAKA)

Despite the selfless reward, signing on to ZAKA is no light matter. Dedicated individuals are aware of the gruesome tasks they might face when they volunteer and must have a certain strength of mind to overcome the horrible images they will be exposed to. Even so, Meshi-Zahav describes how the diverse  group involved in ZAKA have put their heart and soul into their work.

“Volunteers of ZAKA come from a variety of ethnic groups and sectors in Israel: Jews and non-Jews, religious and non-religious, men and women,” Meshi-Zahav explained to Breaking Israel News. “Here in Israel, good people still feel responsible for their environment, and feel it is correct to stand up and engage in the holy mission of saving lives.”

These universal sentiments expressed by Meshi-Zahav reflect several core values in Jewish thought. One that comes to mind is the famous Talmudic quote, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he has saved an entire world” (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a). Meshi-Zahav relates his own core principle, words which he says his 3,000 volunteers live by: “Our motto is ‘save who can be saved and give honor to those who remain’.”

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