Haredi ZAKA diving course 311.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Baraleh Yakobovitch says he’ll never forget standing on the banks of a man-made Ukrainian lake, watching as Israeli teen Eli Eliah, 19, drowned this past Rosh Hashana.
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Yakobovitch, who was part of the ZAKA team providing first-aid assistance and security at the annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage to the town of Uman in the Ukraine, said that moment instilled in him the desire to learn to be a rescue diver.
“We ran down to the water and we saw the bubbles rising to the surface, but none of us knew how to dive, and it was very deep, so we had to just stand there until someone came who could help,” the 24-year-old Bnei Brak native said.
“When I came back to Israel, I told myself I have to take part in the diving course so I know that if there is another case like this, I can help, and not just have to stay on the shore.”
Yakobovitch was part of a group of eight ZAKA volunteers at the Tel Aviv marina on Monday, finishing a course for the private search and rescue organization’s special-diving unit, which trains to assist as amphibious first responders.
While the volunteer team numbers more than 248 mainly secular divers, according to ZAKA, the eight men who finished the course on Sunday and Monday this week represent what the organization said are the first haredi (ultra-Orthodox) volunteers for the squad.
They were a curious lot at the marina on Monday morning: five divers, three of them haredi, setting out for a late-morning dive two kilometers off the city’s seashore.
They teased each other in Yiddish and Hebrew, tucking their side locks underneath their goggles before beginning the dive. Think an allmale Baywatch set in a seaside Bnei Brak, and you may get the idea.
They were assisted on Monday morning by Roni, a diving trainer whose boat took them out to sea, as well as a female assistant appropriately named “Coral,” who wore a not-so-modest wetsuit. She did joke in passing that diving in a skirt would have presented its own difficulties.
One of the divers, Shnior Ehrentreu, 37, said he should have joined Shayetet 13, the Israel Navy frogmen unit, adding, “If I’d been on the [Turkish ship Mavi] Marmara, you have no idea what I would have done.”
The Mea She’arim kippa store owner/manufacturer and father of six then extended a colossal hand to prove his point, before extolling the virtues of Thai boxing, which he said he studied for eight years in Israel.
Ehrentreu said that his beard is a nuisance when he’s diving, so he puts a small piece of adhesive rubber above his lip to hold it in place so it doesn’t block his view or enter his mask.
“I joined this [diving] course to give something back, to help people and the community,” Ehrentreu said, before explaining how there is a wealth of very intelligent, talented people in the haredi world, that just not enough have acquired a proper work ethic.
He added that the fact that the course is all male and takes place during the winter, when there are fewer women at the beach, also helped encourage him to join.
Moments later, the towering, broad-shouldered Chabadnik traded his Marlboro Light for an oxygen tank and plunged into the water, where he said he’s always felt at home.