"Everywhere, the acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air," writes the head of the ZAKA International Rescue Unit Mati Goldstein in an email to the ZAKA headquarters in Jerusalem. 'It's just like the stories we are told of the Holocaust - thousands of bodies everywhere. You have to understand that the situation is true madness, and the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped. It is beyond comprehension."

And this from someone who, as a volunteer with the Israel-based ZAKA rescue and recovery humanitarian organization for the last 13 years, has assisted at Israel's worst terror attacks and witnessed the horrors of international mass casualty incidents from the tsunami to Mumbai, New Orleans to Istanbul.

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A father of four, American-born and Israel-raised Goldstein, is typical of ZAKA's 1500 volunteers - highly trained and ready to drop everything at a moment's notice to help others, regardless of religion, race or creed. Goldstein and three team members were in Mexico City, completing their sacred work in the aftermath of a helicopter crash that killed four Mexican Jews, when the earthquake happened.

Recognized by the United Nations as an international humanitarian volunteer organization, the ZAKA International Rescue Unit (the first Israeli delegation to arrive) was dispatched to the collapsed 8-storey university building where the cries of trapped students could clearly be heard. In a painstaking, 38 hour operation, the ZAKA team, working with the Mexican military and Mexican Jewish volunteers, created a tunnel through the rubble to reach the survivors, trapped in air pockets under the collapsed 8 storey building. One by one, they succeeded in pulling eight students alive from the rubble.

Shabbat in Haiti for the ultra-orthodox ZAKA volunteers was, in Goldstein's words, "the Shabbat from hell. Amid the stench and chaos, the ZAKA delegation took time out to recite Shabbat prayers - a surreal sight of ultra-orthodox men wrapped in prayer shawls standing on the collapsed buildings. Many locals sat quietly in the rubble, staring at the men as they prayed facing Jerusalem. At the end of the prayers, they crowded around the delegation and kissed the prayer shawls."

The team has continued its life-saving, rescue and recovery work during every daylight hour (work stops at night due to the worsening safety situation in Haiti). Captured in a surreal video clip, the ZAKA volunteers took time out from the grim reality and taught the Haitians how to sing Heveinu Shalom Aleichem in Hebrew.

As the rescue mission turns into a recovery operation, the ZAKA volunteers who are highly trained and experienced in this specialist area, will remain in Haiti for another month to help with the recovery, identification and burial of bodies.

"This is the mission of the ZAKA International Rescue Unit:," adds ZAKA founder and chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, "to assist in mass casualty incidents wherever they occur in the world, regardless of religion, race or creed. If there's no respect for the dead, there's no respect for life".
To donate to the ZAKA Haiti fund: https://www.zaka.us/haiti.asp

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