JERUSALEM — Fervently Orthodox Jews, clad in fluorescent vests, were struggling to extricate survivors from the crumbled remains of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem. These volunteers pushed, pulled, lifted, and sifted alongside police, rescue workers, and firemen. Just yards away, a tent had been set up for eating the Sabbath meal or praying to God. What those in that makeshift synagogue prayed for, we can only surmise, but their deeds were seen throughout the country. The disaster — a building collapse that took the lives of 23 people and injured over 300 — took place on a Friday and the search for survivors lasted throughout the Sabbath. The heroic volunteers, all religious Jews, acted on the Torah principle that “saving a life takes precedence over the Sabbath”; and, in the process, they unexpectedly became an integral, honored part of mainstream Israeli society.
In traditional Jewish sources, “true benevolence” (chesed shel emet in Hebrew) refers to the act of caring for the dead. Of all the benevolent acts a person can perform, caring for the dead is considered almost pure altruism, for the dead have no way of repaying the kind deed. In Israel, about eight years ago, a special volunteer organization was established in the Orthodox Jewish community to carry out just such acts of “true benevolence” for victims of accidents, terrorism, or other forms of sudden death. They were regularly referred to in the media as “the people of true benevolence” as they began to appear at the scenes of terrorist bombings and other such incidents. At the time, all they did was pick up the pieces — more often than not, quite literally. Today, that small, religiously motivated organization has grown into an internationally recognized first-response service, mobile victim-identification unit, and search-and-rescue team. Recently, volunteers from the organization were even asked to assist in providing security at a large outdoor public celebration in northern Israel.
But not just in Israel. The organization shares its accumulated knowledge, expertise, and professionalism with rescue teams and governments throughout the world. Groups of volunteers are scattered around the globe, available to provide immediate advice and instruction in handling multiple-victim disasters. That is how the organization’s representatives came to participate in the rescue efforts subsequent to the horrifying September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center; the deadly terrorist bombing of a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya; and the recovery of the remains of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle. In recognition of the work of its 743 volunteers, the organization has earned numerous awards and citations from many national and international bodies, including the United Nations.
As always, the rescue workers remain all-volunteer, and all motivated by Torah values. They are known simply by their Hebrew acronym — ZAKA.
ZAKA stands for Disaster Victim Identification. The name, however, conceals so much more than it reveals. Dedicated ZAKA volunteers from around the country often found themselves the first at the scene of a terrorist attack or accident, before police and ambulances had even arrived. ZAKA leaders decided that such a crucial advantage — in a situation where every second can mean the difference between life and death — had to be exploited to the fullest.
Thus, ZAKA began sending its volunteers to learn emergency medicine with Magen David Adom (Israel’s ambulance corps). Once their volunteers were properly trained, the ZAKA directors saw to it that they were equipped to save lives, outfitting certain units with motorcycles carrying lifesaving resuscitation equipment. ZAKA organizational director and founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav says that the relatively new units have performed dozens of successful resuscitations thus far, some of them in cases when even the fastest medical staff arrived only after four minutes — “an eternity in medical terms.”
Meshi-Zahav is also known to Israelis for a role he plays outside ZAKA. He is the spokesman for the Eida Haredit, an umbrella organization for religious Jews who define themselves as “non-Zionist.” Before the latest Arab terrorist offensive against Israel, the red-haired, outspoken activist often found himself the target of the secular media’s venom for certain positions taken by the Eida Haredit on issues of the day. Those issues touched on the very character and symbols of the modern Jewish state, which many in the Eida see as an obstacle, in theological terms, to the ultimate Redemption.
Last Israel Independence Day, however, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was honored for his role in ZAKA with the lighting of a torch at an official state ceremony. The act itself, which concludes with the phrase “for the honor of the State of Israel,” represented a revolution in all directions. That the state of Israel awarded a public honor to a prominent member of the Eida Haredit, and that it was accepted, was a first. Meshi-Zahav explained that after spending years picking up body parts at the scenes of terrorist attacks, he had come to the conclusion that “the time has come to learn to live with one another, not just by each other’s side.” He stated with absolute conviction that, for him, lighting an Independence Day torch is a “Kiddush Hashem” — a “sanctification of God’s name.”
That sanctification went live on an international scale on March 5, 2003, when foreign television stations broadcast an interview with a bearded ZAKA volunteer at the scene of a suicide bombing outside a Haifa mall. Against a backdrop of ZAKA volunteers, firefighters, and policemen scurrying to and fro, the ZAKA spokesman explained to the foreign press corps what had happened and what needed yet to be done. But it was not intrepid reporters that brought the ZAKA man to television screens worldwide. In the wake of the terrorist onslaught against Israel, the Foreign Ministry had decided to recruit all hands for Israel’s foreign relations, and ZAKA agreed to play a part. Many ZAKA volunteers then underwent Foreign Ministry training (along with Israeli firefighters) preparing them to make statements to the international press. Ministry officials explained that firemen and ZAKA volunteers are particularly potent spokesmen: They’re interviewed while dressed in their respective uniforms, and they speak directly from the scene of a terrorist attack, while rescue efforts are ongoing.
In a way, the volunteers of ZAKA and the Arab suicide bombers epitomize the true clash of cultures underway here in Israel and around the world. One culture produces people willing to wade into a crowd of children, look them in the eyes, and murder them; the other produces people willing to do whatever is necessary to protect human dignity, even in death.
It is true cruelty, contrasted with true benevolence.
— Nissan Ratzlav-Katz is opinion editor at IsraelNationalNews.com. His commentaries have been published internationally and translated into several languages.