Religious Affairs: Bringing kin together

ZAKA founder Meshi-Zahav discusses haredi extremism, religious-secular tensions - and the organization’s work.

Zaka volunteer 390 (photo credit: Courtesy of ZAKA)
Zaka volunteer 390
(photo credit: Courtesy of ZAKA)
Recent times in Israel have witnessed an alarming growth in inter-communal tensions within Jewish society.
Extremist ultra-Orthodox factions fight violently and vigorously against any encroachment of secular, liberal lifestyle, and secular society has begun to react strongly and – often shrilly – in response.
But one organization, the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization, seeks to soothe societal wounds through a coming together not only of the many ultra-Orthodox volunteers in its ranks but of secular, Zionist and other religious people to bridge current divides One of the foundation stones of the organization, ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi- Zahav explains, is the value of volunteerism. The acronym of the organization, he says, stands both for Disaster Victim Identification (in Hebrew) as well as for “zeh kiruv achim,” literally, “this is the bringing together of kin.”
“Our central value and motto today is to get as many people as possible to join in the aid and volunteer spirit,” Meshi-Zahav told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
“Volunteering helps connect and unite people, provides them with a different perspective and breaks down barriers. So the more people we can enlist to this value the better our society will become.”
ZAKA ITSELF began through Meshi-Zahav’s desire to help and serve. As a yeshiva student in 1989, he and his fellow students helped gather the remains of the 16 people killed in the terrorist attack on the No. 405 bus. In 1995, he set up the organization as a network of haredi men to give back to society and provide a service that was not being addressed.
Volunteering should not however, be seen as simply a donation to society, he explains. “Anyone who gives and volunteers benefits himself first and foremost. The person giving of himself gets much more than the recipient; he grows and becomes a better person.”
ZAKA provides a real service, though, with over 1,650 volunteers around the country on call to respond to terror attacks, disasters and accidents. The original and ongoing task of ZAKA volunteers is to help identify the dead and collect blood and remains in order to bury as much of the body as possible, in accordance with Jewish law.
As well as honoring the dead, ZAKA also helps save lives with its fleet of rapid-response first-aid motorbikes ridden by paramedics who deal with more than 7,000 incidents a year, as well as its search-and-rescue branch which includes units that include diving, climbing and rappelling and canine search teams and deals with 2,000 incidents a year.
It’s clear that Meshi-Zahav sees within his work a mission not just to help society practically, but also break down barriers, to unite people, to build bridges and bring disparate sectors of the public together.
As he is a member of the ultra-Orthodox community, this aspect of his work seems especially relevant in light of current inter-communal tensions between the haredi public and wider Israeli society.
BUT AS Meshi-Zahav himself relates, he was not always a paradigm of civil responsibility.
An 11th-generation Jerusalemite raised amidst the often febrile anti-Zionist environment of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods, Meshi-Zahav was arrested 34 times during various anti-Zionist demonstrations.
His views were dramatically changed in the bus 405 attack that was the inspiration for ZAKA. He viewed the assault as an attack on the entire Jewish people, who are all bound to the same fate regardless of religious conviction.
Meshi-Zahav has in recent months strongly spoken out against the extremism and violence that has been perpetrated by segments of the ultra-Orthodox community. In a recent op-ed for the JTA, he compared the attacks of the Sikrikim radicals to Islamist terrorists and called on community leaders to speak out.
“These extremists have lit a fire in their own house and now it threatens us all,” he said. “Now we need to put it out before it spreads, because today we’re being attacked from all sides because of what these people are doing.”
So why haven’t more haredi leaders spoken out against the extremism? “They’re cowards, they’re scared, what other reason can there be,” he says.
“This is where the real problem lies – with the leaders and rabbis. But to be a rabbi is not just to know Torah, you have to lead your community, to direct them and so not everyone will lump you together and treat you the same. Unfortunately, at the moment no one is opening their mouth and speaking out.”
Meshi-Zahav is defensive of the haredi community in general. He points out that the radicals are an extremely small fringe segment of the community and that Israeli society is unfairly judging the ultra-Orthodox collectively based on the actions of the minority.
“Secular people don’t know us, all they see is the newspapers reports in which this haredi guy did this or that,” he says. “But I hear stories all the time in which friends of mine say they were told by a secular person, ‘oh you’re not like the other haredim.’ So who is, then?”
He relates how, although ZAKA dealt with 24 murder cases last August alone, in the end of the year news round-ups the only violence mentioned was that of the haredi extremists. “They didn’t mention even one murder. They talked about haredi riots and burning garbage bins. Is this the worst violence in Israel?
“If some young kollel student spits at an eight-year old girl, then he clearly needs a psychiatrist,” Meshi-Zahav says in reference to the spitting attacks and other abuse perpetrated by extremist haredim in Beit Shemesh in recent months. “But if you look in the prisons and the records, the haredi community is the most law-abiding community in the country.”
He also points out that it is the haredi community which has borne the large brunt of the extremist attacks and radicalization.
Is there, then, a solution to the issue?
Meshi-Zahav says he’s unsure. On one hand, the issue is not being dealt with at its core but on the other hand the haredi population is growing to such an extent that its attitudes, he feels, may have to change.
“I don’t know one haredi who wants to live in a state led by haredim,” he says. If haredim ran Egged, you’d wait five hours for a bus, 10 would then come at once, and they’d all go on the wrong route. What would happen in terms of security? Of the economy?”
ZAKA AND Meshi-Zahav will keep doing what they excel at: providing services to honor the dead and save the living, as he eloquently puts it.
And in so doing, the goals of both Jewish and human unity can also be advanced.
“It says in the Torah that man was created in the image of God – it doesn’t say Jew or non-Jew, religious or not religious – and so we deal with everyone, sometimes in bizarre circumstances like in a terror attack when you’re dealing with the body parts of the terrorist too.”
He relates a story from ZAKA’s international search and rescue operations in Japan following the devastating earthquake and Tsunami that struck the country last year. The ZAKA team was working with Japanese emergency crews when they were joined by another group. They naturally began talking about where they were from and it turned out that the new team was Iranian. Together they continued their work and then distributed food and hot meals to local residents.
A photo of the teams posing together with their respective flags after the unlikely encounter symbolizes the broader goals of ZAKA and what Meshi-Zahav has set out to achieve – a coming together of people to better their communities and themselves at the same time.