In the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the most morbid – and perhaps sacred – commandments is for people to bury the remains of a murdered fellow Jew within 24 hours of his or her death, lest they be “cursed” in the eyes of God.
In Israel, there is a select group of primarily Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men who volunteer to undertake this commandment in the direst and most macabre of circumstances.
Wearing yarmulkes, fluorescent yellow vests, and occasionally hazmat suits, they are easily identifiable at the scenes of deadly terrorist attacks as they gather the remains of victims – including soaking their blood in paper towels – for a proper Jewish burial.
They are members of the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization
, founded in 1995 by Yehuda Meshi Zahav as a civilian volunteer organization, with the sole responsibility of responding to incidents of sudden death.
Today, over 3,000 volunteers are on call 24/7 to immediately respond to any terror attack, disaster, accident or search and rescue operation across the country. Roughly 2,000 of these men deal exclusively with unnatural deaths, frequently under extremely violent pretexts.
David Rose, international director of ZAKA and a veteran volunteer, is among them.
On Tuesday, Rose shed rare light on why men volunteer for the organization, as well as the psychological trauma caused by what is undeniably one of the most disturbing vocations in the world.
“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.”
To this end, ZAKA volunteers – including over 1,000 in 35 countries – learn body identification in accordance with the latest professional verification techniques and Jewish law to avoid any halachic uncertainty, and unnecessary distress to family members.
“Ninety-nine percent of them have regular day jobs, but as soon as they get a message on their beeper or WhatsApp they drop everything to help,” Rose said. “Every city has a team, and we average 150 people a month who die nationally by accidents, suicide, murder or terrorist attacks.”
The largest team of volunteers, he noted, is based in Jerusalem, where a disproportionate number of terrorist attacks take place amid a shaky status quo between Jews and Arabs.
ZAKA and other first-responders (such as Magen David Adom and United Hatzalah) are the only organizations trained and authorized by the Israel Police to handle any incident of sudden death.
However, in addition to dealing with the disasters themselves, Rose said ZAKA workers must also endure an acute psychological trauma few could withstand, let alone voluntarily immerse themselves in.
“The volunteers require great emotional strength and power as they deal with the intensive work associated with disaster, including informing the families whose dear ones have been killed or wounded, identifying the bodies, and accompanying the families in their difficult hours,” he said.
“The very nature of their work exposes the volunteers to such traumatic scenes that only a select few can cope with.”
Indeed, an excerpt from the diary of an unidentified ZAKA volunteer following Jerusalem’s 2015 Armon Hanatziv murders – where two Arab terrorists boarded an Egged bus and shot and stabbed three Jewish men to death – illustrates the complex compartmentalization process.
“We are accustomed to the difficult experience of handling the dead and the murdered,” the man wrote. “We deeply absorb the grief and the pain.
We take in the tragedy in which we find ourselves. We feel the crazy horror around us. We live the ‘chesed,’ or virtue, of handling fatalities.”
It is the last element of the entry that Rose said empowers these men – ranging in age between 20 and 80 – to continue their work, and fortify themselves after it is completed.
“Chesed means charity or kindness,” he said. “A regular person practices it by helping people out, which they derive a benefit from by seeing how they helped them.”
ZAKA Shining the Light in the dark (YouTube/ארגון זקא)
“The higher level of chesed, as stated in the Torah,” Rose continued, “is helping someone who is unable to thank you because he is no longer with us. So, you carry out this chesed without expecting any reward, which makes it the highest level of virtue.”
Despite the spiritual reward for such work, Rose said volunteers – and their families – are far from immune from the pathos it engenders.
He cited the 2002 Park Hotel Passover massacre in Netanya, where 30 people were killed, as one of the most jarring experiences faced by ZAKA volunteers, many of whom required counseling.
More recently, he noted, was Jerusalem’s 2014 Har Nof massacre, where four rabbis and a police officer were hacked and shot to death in a synagogue by Arab terrorists.
“After experiencing what happened in Har Nof, we were broken up into different groups and had support from psychologists and social workers who asked us to tell our stories and what we saw,” he recounted. “By talking out what we saw and what we did, a lot of times it helps get it out of your chest and helps you out. And those who need extra attention get it.”
Much of the grit that fortifies volunteers after witnessing such gruesome tragedies, he said, comes from “Jewish belief,” as well as singing religious hymns together.
“We sing songs about Jewish belief which brings us closer and creates strength,” he said. “It makes a big difference.”
Still, Rose conceded that a small percentage of ZAKA’s first-responders develop post-traumatic stress and can no longer volunteer.
“Around 3% suffer from PTSD, but 95% stay on the job,” he said.
Moreover, he said immediate family members of volunteers also suffer from the grisly encounters.
“We had one young father who no longer got up at night to help his wife with their baby,” he recounted. “And when we asked him what was going on, he said he could no longer do it because one of the recent cases he dealt with involved a mother who decapitated her baby in Jerusalem.
“So, we gave him all the support he needed and helped arrange a support group for his wife, and other wives as well.”
Rose continued: “These are good people who care about their communities, but until they go [into a scene] it is difficult to know how they will react, and what impact it will have on them and their families, which is why we offer as much support as possible.”