Last week Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation hosted Yehuda-Meshi Zahav, chairman of ZAKA, Israel’s national disaster identification team whose mission is to rescue and recover victims following terror attacks, bombings and natural disasters.
“[ZAKA is] a unique organization that does very difficult and very special work that has earned the admiration of the Jewish world and the world at large,” said Bnai Jacob’s Rabbi Moshe Hauer.
ZAKA, a Hebrew acronym for disaster victim identification, was recognized as an official organization in 1995. However, the impetus for it came in 1989 when Zahav, then a yeshiva student, witnessed firsthand the destruction caused when Egged bus No. 405 exploded after being steered off a mountain by a terrorist.
“The scenes we go to are scenes that most people are running away from,” said David Rose, international director of development for ZAKA who accompanied Zahav to Baltimore.
One of ZAKA’s key principles is chessed shel emet which refers to the act of honoring the dead. It is considered one of the highest acts of altruism because there is no way for the recipient to repay the kindness.
The organization’s primary goal is to ensure that both Jewish and non-Jewish victims receive a timely and proper burial following any kind of disaster from terrorist attacks to earthquakes.
They are the only official Israeli police recognized organization allowed to handle the recovery and identification of body parts during a mass attack or natural disaster.
“There are Jewish laws, not only about a dead person, but about respecting life,” said Rose. “Families need closure and a place to mourn. Nobody wants to know that their loved one was treated like a sack of potatoes.”
ZAKA trains and works with Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency response team, and while on location, ZAKA volunteers are clearly identified by their clothing. ZAKA uses reversible jackets: they wear the orange side out, the same color worn by MDA medics, when volunteers are providing medical assistance to the living. They wear the yellow side out when they are recovering and identifying bodies.
Most recently, ZAKA volunteers were among those assisting victims of the Nepalese earthquakes.
“From the moment we heard about the earthquake in Nepal, it was clear to us that we must send a delegation as quickly as possible,” said Eli Beer, founder of Israelife Foundation and president of United Hatzolah, in a written statement. “In most cases, members of our delegation were the first medical personnel to arrive at the scene, and their activities helped save hundreds of lives.”
“On hearing the news, we realized immediately that this was a mass casualty event,” said Zahav in a written statement. “At first there were about 200 Israelis with whom contact was lost. The [ZAKA] delegation carried out their holy work in very difficult field conditions and with great dedication.”
Nepal ambassador to Israel, H.E. Prahlad Kumar Prasai, awarded certificates of appreciation to volunteers from ZAKA, United Hatzolah and F.I.R.S.T this past June, and ZAKA has been recognized as an international humanitarian organization by the United Nations for their work in places like Nepal.
Similar to MDA, ZAKA receives little money from the Israeli government for the work they do, yet all of the services they provide are free of charge.
Because of this, ZAKA depends on donors both domestically in Israel and abroad. Although Zahav and Rose visited the U.S for a training drill in Indiana with the National Guard, they visited Baltimore to help spread the word about ZAKA’s work.
Hauer hopes that his congregation was inspired ZAKA’s commitment to human life and faith.
“To stand as a model for living your faith, there’s an inspiring lesson in that,” said Hauer.