“The call can come at any time. In the middle of a wedding or family celebration, during an important business meeting or even while singing songs at the Shabbat table,” explains David Rose, International Director of ZAKA and a veteran volunteer himself. Rose is referring to a call to action for the 3,000+ volunteers in the ZAKA Search and Rescue organization – a call to save lives or honor those who cannot be saved.
The ZAKA volunteers drop everything, grab their emergency medical kits and fluorescent vests and head off to the scene, as fast as possible. After working at the scene to save lives, they will then reverse their ZAKA vests – and their mindsets – from orange to yellow, from emergency medical response to the sacred work of chesed shel emet, ensuring a proper Jewish burial for the victims.
And what exactly is this sacred work? And what motivates the volunteers to expose themselves, day after day, to the most harrowing scenes of sudden death?
“In ZAKA, we are motivated by our faith, which not only determines that a Jew should be buried within 24 hours, but also that man was made in the divine image,” continues Rose. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Rose expands on this idea:
“A person is created in the image of God, so he or she needs to be dealt with in a sacred way,” explained Rose.
“In Jewish belief, the person is brought whole into the world, and therefore should be brought back whole in burial, and their blood is considered part of their souls.”
For most people, doing good deeds, charitable work or other types of kindness, means helping friends, family, neighbors and even strangers. “In these cases, the person doing the good deed derives a benefit, not just the person on the receiving end. However, when you help someone who cannot express his gratitude because he is no longer with us – that is, according to the Torah, the highest level of chesed. And it is this chesed shel emet that the ZAKA volunteers are doing every day, without any expectation of reward or gratitude,” notes Rose.
In a typical month, there are 150 incidents of unnatural and sudden death – anything from car accidents and suicides to terror attacks and work accidents. About two-thirds of ZAKA’s volunteer force are working exclusively on chesed shel emet, split into teams around the country. ZAKA is the only organization in Israel authorized by the Israel Police to deal with sudden death.
“The ZAKA volunteers learn and practice body identification in accordance with the latest professional techniques and Jewish law, beyond any doubt, thereby avoiding any halachic uncertainty and unnecessary distress.” continues Rose. “The volunteers also accompany the bereaved families, from notifying them of the death of their loved ones, to helping with all the logistics of the funeral and shiva – we even have a gemach or free loan of equipment needed by the mourners in the shiva house”.
But with the mission comes the trauma – however veteran and experienced the volunteer, these are traumatic and distressing scenes and it is very difficult for the volunteers to continue their everyday family life after witnessing such tragedies.
In order to help volunteers cope with this sacred work, ZAKA offers emotional counseling and debriefing after particularly harrowing events to both the volunteers themselves and to their wives. For example, after the Har Nof massacre in 2014, where the difficulties for the ZAKA volunteers were compounded by their personal connections to the victims, psychologists and social workers met with the volunteers in small groups, allowing them to vent their feelings and tell their stories. “By talking out what we saw and what we did, a lot of times it helps get it off your chest and helps you out”, recalls Rose.
In a workshop for ZAKA wives held during the height of the “knife” intifada, one young wife, married for three years to a ZAKA Rapid Rescue Motorcycle volunteer in his early twenties, and mother to two young children, noted they were once “a young couple full of joie de vivre, with our whole lives ahead of us. But lately a depressive, melancholy atmosphere has pervaded our home. So far, my husband has treated the injured and dead at over twenty terror attacks, and this is in addition to the “routine” calls. He comes home extremely despondent, sometimes he has trouble falling asleep. And he finds it really important that I listen to what happened to him, so he tells me about the terrible incident where he treated people, and so I’m also sucked into the harsh and heavy atmosphere. I have no doubt that my husband is doing holy work and a great mitzva, but who knows how this will affect him in the future?”
In an international psychologists’ conference held in Israel last year, one of the sessions was entitled “What is the Genetic Code of ZAKA Volunteers?” The researchers’ concluded that it was their unshakeable faith that drove the ZAKA volunteers and that, without it, they would not be able to continue functioning. The researchers also noted that volunteering and sense of mission have become addictive for ZAKA volunteers – an addiction to doing true deeds of kindness (chesed shel emet), often under the most terrible conditions.
While the volunteers are ready to answer the call to action anytime, the volunteers are grappling with another urgent problem. The walkie-talkies they have been using for years to receive calls will no longer operate in 2018.
“The clock is ticking down to the New Year, and we urgently need to raise $180,000 to buy 600 specially-adapted phones for our ZAKA volunteers,” explains Rose. “These phones have state-of-the-art technology and GPS data to make our response even faster and more efficient.”
“This is a race against time,” adds Rose. “In ZAKA, minutes save lives. Now, with the help of our friends, we have just a few days left to make sure that our volunteers can continue to receive calls for help in the new year.”
Click here to donate – and ZAKA will double your donation with matching funds.