The volunteers of ZAKA SA, handling the work that few can do
By Chandrea Serebro
It is truly humbling to meet people who do what they do with the purest of intentions and for the sheer virtue of it. Leshem shamayim (for the sake of heaven) is altruism at its best and it’s the only way to describe the good work that ZAKA does internationally. ZAKA is an international rescue and recovery organisation based out of Jerusalem in Israel, with branches all over the world, including a South African chapter which started in 2015 and is under the umbrella of the Community Security Organisation (CSO). ZAKA was officially founded here in South Africa to unite the working relationships between security, medical, and burial teams. As such, ZAKA comprises members of the CSO, EZRA, Hatzolah, and the Chevrah Kadisha, working together “to ensure that in the period from attack to resumed normal daily life, no Jew is left behind”, explains Daniel Forman, head of ZAKA SA.
It’s a world-renowned NPO that is recognised by the UN, where every member is a volunteer, highly skilled to deal with some of the most complex situations. Born out of the need to address the halachic and dignified manner of treating the dead and their remains after a terror attack, the organisation has grown substantially over the years, opening its doors to a wide range of people and skills. Today, ZAKA is made up of a network of volunteers who are rabbis, doctors, businessmen, doctors, rescue technicians, and paramedics, leaving their meetings, their families, and their desks to assist when needed. ZAKA coordinates the different units around the world when and wherever a Jew needs assistance, in specialist search and rescue assignments on land and sea, and for people who have been affected by disaster, both natural and unnatural.
But it’s probably the highly visible and emotionally distressing work of chesed shel emes – which entails the halachic and dignified treatment and management of the dead and their remains after an unnatural or traumatic passing – for which ZAKA is best known and which is what sets them apart from any other organisation around the world as true hidden heroes in the fullest sense, because the person who died cannot repay the kindness. “This is a unique unit with a unique mission – to honour the dead and ensure a full Jewish burial for those who meet a sudden death, by collecting all of the remains at the terror or accident site,” says committed ZAKA volunteer Chaim Sarchi. It is difficult and often heart-wrenching work, which they perform with the utmost of care.
“In Judaism, saving a life is as if you have saved the world, and honouring and respecting the dead, treating a person’s body and its remains with the utmost respect, is an imperative,” explains veteran medic and firefighter and ZAKA volunteer Eli Lewenstein. “And ZAKA encompasses the epitome of these two principles.”
“As Jews, we too have a natural affinity to take care of our own better than anybody else can, through thousands of years of lessons learned. When disaster sets in, it’s up to us, the Jewish people alone, to best take care of the remains of our dearly departed. Particularly in the South African context, when we don’t know who is going to be handling the remains, we make sure we are there to see to it that, as far as possible, every element of Jewish law, human dignity, and that unique Yiddishe sensitivity is adhered to at all times,” says Daniel. “We do the work of Hashem. And just by doing that, we are inspired, and that is thanks enough.”
“It’s inspiring to know that there is an organisation that is available to call on for assistance in the most difficult of times and to handle the most unpleasant of work – and knowing that the work will be done in the correct ‘Jewish way’ with respect and dignity,” says Levi Singer, another volunteer at ZAKA whose twelve years working at Hatzolah lead him to join the ZAKA team. Whether it’s picking up a family member and escorting them through some of the difficult tasks, or doing things that most people can’t even think about, ZAKA is there, dedicated and committed.
In addition to ZAKA’s work in honouring the dead, Chaim explains, the volunteer organisation has grown organically over the years to provide specialist search and rescue units which can be called upon 24/7. Unbeknownst to most of us, missing persons is a regular function of the CSO and in which ZAKA SA plays an integral supporting role. “Our team is called upon at any time to search and locate missing persons from our community. In conjunction with the CSO, we use specialised processes and operations to make sure missing people are located.”
These search and rescue capabilities have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the organisation, increased its cooperation with the national emergency and rescue services, and – most importantly – helped save countless lives by reacting in a speedy and professional manner, with the relevant skills and equipment. “Thanks to the special structure and deployment of the units, ZAKA volunteers can be called up and deployed in a short space of time and in high concentration of numbers for missing person searches – trained volunteers who carry all the necessary equipment for a missing person search.”
With the global occurrence of terror attacks as well as natural disasters which have left destruction and decimation in their wake, ZAKA has been busy across the globe. Eli says ZAKA International has previously assisted on rescue missions such as the 2004 Tsunami off the coasts of Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, the terrorists attacks that took place in Mumbai India in 2008, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the earthquake in Japan in 2011, and the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, as well as with the terror attacks in Kenya and France, among many others. “It’s obviously our hope that we never have to work in those circumstances, but we are prepared for them here in South Africa too,” says Levi.
ZAKA is part of a worldwide family of about 3500 volunteers who, through the co-ordination of Mati Goldstein, the head of the International Unit, and Rabbi Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the chairman of ZAKA, help fellow Jews around the world. “For me, ZAKA is an exceptional organisation. We run on heart. I watch the dedicated volunteers jump at any opportunity to get involved. Every drop of work that we do is done leshem shamayim. What people don’t always realise is that there is a whole extra element that happens when paramedics leave a scene. We come in, when everyone has left. Families are looking for answers and closure. We handle the period during the lull of incident to normality, give support to the living, and maintain the dignity of the dead.” It’s a “sad, yet moving opportunity to do for someone who can’t speak for themselves”, says Daniel.
ZAKA SA can be activated in times of need by contacting the CSO 24 hour emergency control room on 086 18 000 18.
Money was raised to send three volunteers to participate in a mass casualty disaster exercise in Indianapolis earlier this year. The drill was co-ordinated with the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Army. Participants included the militaries of various countries and their search and rescue units and teams including the United States, Israel and Mexico. Using an old hotel in the area, part of the building was demolished with all of its contents. Prior to the demolition, instructors placed fake bodies in the building. Together with the US Army, FEMA Task Force, Local Authorities, US Air Force, IDF, Home Front Command, and ZAKA, participants divided into mixed teams tasked with recovering all 200 fake bodies in the hotel. Learning from each other, acquiring different techniques and new methods from the world’s top search and rescue personnel, the participants brought these skills back to South Africa to further train ZAKA personnel to ensure that the community and its volunteers are up-to-date and familiar with the world standard on search and rescue.