Yossi Fraenkel’s life is an object lesson in how to turn lemons into lemonade.
Born into a London Chabad family 34 years ago, he suffered academically due to what he calls his “ADD in high definition, otherwise known as ADHD.” At age 13 he simply stopped attending school. Inspired by the example of his parents, however, he learned to channel his energy into good deeds.
Today, just four years after making aliya, Fraenkel is the operations officer for the ZAKA International Rescue Units as well as deputy commander of its Jerusalem region (the UN-recognized volunteer organization works in Israel and abroad at the scenes of accidents, suicides, natural disasters and terrorist attacks).
He has responded to some of the most shocking terrorist incidents in recent memory, including Jerusalem’s Har Nof synagogue attack and the stabbing of a Kiryat Arba teen in her bed. He speaks on behalf of ZAKA to groups visiting Israel, at college campuses overseas and in other capacities.
“To me, the most important thing is that people know ZAKA is a service available for them anywhere in the world,” he says.
Fraenkel also volunteers for Magen David Adom and the police. In addition, he runs the Ma’ayanot synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot.
On top of these voluntary activities, he does graphic design and runs a production company.
“I don’t need much sleep. I can go for days working around the clock,” he says.
AT 18, Fraenkel accepted his older brother’s invitation to join him in New York, and here is where he found his true calling – or rather, callings.
He became a coordinator of the Crown Heights Shomrim, a voluntary Jewish neighborhood patrol in Brooklyn.
He also became an honorary police chaplain, helping to meet the religious needs of Jewish police officers as well as Jews in trouble with the law. He joined Chesed Shel Emes, a non-profit community organization whose members prepare Jewish bodies for burial.
“I once got a call about a person struck by a train, and I wanted to help out in a halachic way and it just went from there,” Fraenkel says.
“Whenever there were [Jewish] issues in the Brooklyn Medical Examiner’s office I went to help, and it was very interesting. As much as people are scared of death, it’s a part of life and I try to grace it in whatever way I can, making sure the dead are honored.”
When Chesed Shel Emes entered an affiliation with Israel-based ZAKA – a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification – Fraenkel automatically became a ZAKA member.
During his nine years in New York, he earned rabbinic ordination and made a living by singing with a band at weddings and bar mitzvas. He often donated his services to poor families and orphans.
His singing for hospital patients won him an award from Brooklyn-based social-services organization Mekimi.
“Music is the language of the soul,” he says.
He recorded a CD in honor of his brother’s wedding in 2009, the same year his parents suggested he return to London to work in the family business, Mendy’s Kosher Supermarket in Edgware.
FREQUENT VISITS to Israel strengthened Fraenkel’s long-held desire to make aliya, and he arrived in the summer of 2012 after his parents sold their business. They followed him to Jerusalem six months later. He also has brothers in Jerusalem and Bat Yam, and a sister in Tel Aviv.
Fraenkel’s Hebrew was already at a high level.
“When I was 10 or 11, I worked in a pizza store in London owned by Israelis and they insisted on speaking to me only in Hebrew,” he explains. “My Hebrew is not perfect, but it is pretty good.”
Naturally, one of his first stops after landing was ZAKA’s Jerusalem headquarters.
He was hoping for a paid position but due to financial constraints they could only have him continue as a volunteer. To earn some money, he went to work for a few months at a leather bookbindery. Off hours, one of his favorite hangouts was downtown Jerusalem’s Mike’s Place.
“I loved the atmosphere and I loved that it was a kosher bar. Even before aliya I had asked if the owners were interested in selling the bar. And in 2013 they offered me to buy in as a partner,” Fraenkel says. He continued this partnership until September 2016 and now concentrates on his other business pursuits.
However, on the long list of his activities, ZAKA takes the top slot.
“I spend every waking moment on ZAKA business. Even in my sleep I dream about it. People think ZAKA is only for the dead; they don’t realize that we respond to 1,300 medical cases per week, as well as water rescues and missing- person searches. We have a firefighting unit, a jet-ski unit, a diving unit and a drone unit.
“To me, what’s important is to save those we can save and give honor to those we cannot.”
In the Har Nof incident, Fraenkel organized 30 ZAKA volunteers into teams that worked on the grim task of recovering all remains for burial.
“I triaged the scene strategically so everyone could take part in the holy work,” he says. “It was a sight that I pray no one ever sees in their life...”
After any traumatic experience, Fraenkel arranges for Jerusalem’s ZAKA volunteers to meet with psychologists.
As for himself, “I don’t think I would be sane if not for my mother. When I come home from a serious call I sit down with her and talk to her to get it out of my system.”
Throughout the varied aspects of his voluntary service over the years, he has found himself in many unusual situations – from being stuck in prison for Yom Kippur to being on conference calls with terrorists in Mumbai to helping with the clean-up efforts and locating Jewish victims of hurricanes and tsunamis.
Most of his coordination work is done from Israel with Mati Goldstein, commander of the International Rescue Unit, but Fraenkel has also flown to many countries for ZAKA.
“I’m living my dream of helping people. I see what I do here as giving back to the country that I love and that has given so much to me,” he says.
Looking toward the future, Fraenkel says he hopes “to get married and be successful and save more lives.”
He can’t imagine anything better than living in Jerusalem, and he doesn’t like to be away from the city.
“When I leave, I feel down as soon as I get on the plane, and the second I land here again I feel at home,” he says.