ZAKA's mission: Picking up the pieces

The ZAKA volunteers experience unimaginable trauma, but as Farkash noted, gain immense support from their fellow volunteers.

ZAKA first responders Yossi Frankel (right) and Benzi Oring with one of the organization’s emergency vehicles (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
ZAKA first responders Yossi Frankel (right) and Benzi Oring with one of the organization’s emergency vehicles
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Thirty years ago, on July 6, 1989, a 25-year-old terrorist named Abed al-Hadi Ghaneim, a member of Islamic Jihad from the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, attacked the driver of crowded Egged Bus 405 on Highway 1 near Neve Ilan, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The terrorist grabbed the steering wheel and pulled it sharply to the right, to steer the bus off the road and down the steep slope. The driver initially managed to stop him and stabilize the bus, but the terrorist put his feet against the windshield and steered the bus off the road, causing it to tumble out of control down the mountainside.
The bus crashed down the slope for 100 yards and caught fire, trapping the occupants. Sixteen people were killed, including two Canadians and an American, and 27 were injured. The enormous momentum of the bus disassembled many of the bodies.
The terrorist somehow survived and was sentenced to 16 life sentences. He was released in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.
The disaster scene was close to the Telz Stone ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. Yeshiva students rushed to the scene, led by their rabbi, Rabbi Elazar Gelbstein, to help recover the human remains, along with Arab residents from nearby Ein Rafa and Ein Nakuba.
The terrorist attack marked the first suicide incident of the first intifada (even though the terrorist survived). Many more were to follow. And a new, gory problem arose.
Jewish law (Halacha) demands utmost respect for the dead, including a prompt burial, and burial of every part of the body. According to the Yoreh De’ah (a compilation of Halacha), it is a mitzva, and an obligation, to bury separated body parts. But collecting the pieces after terrorist bombings is not a task that Israel Police and Magen David Adom paramedics are trained for.
Enter ZAKA.
ZAKA is a Hebrew acronym meaning “disaster victim identification” (zihui korbanot ason). It has an important subtitle: in Hebrew, chesed shel emet, true lovingkindness (for the dead). The phrase emphasizes that this mitzvah is “true” because the deceased cannot repay it.
ZAKA today has 3,500 volunteers, mostly ultra-Orthodox, who help ambulance crews identify victims of terrorism and road accidents, and where needed, gather body parts and spilled blood for proper burial. ZAKA volunteers also return body parts of suicide bombers to their families.
In the wake of the 1989 incident, Rabbi Elazar Goldstein organized volunteers to help at disaster scenes.
A few years later, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav set up a formal nonprofit organization that he still heads, which was recognized by the government in 1995 and is now a close ally of the Israel Police.
In 2003, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency described ZAKA’s activities thus: “Volunteers gather the remains of bodies, identify as many parts as they can and bury as much of a victim’s body as possible – including blood – in one grave… ZAKA volunteers say their faith in Judaism gives them the strength to keep going – and is their reason for volunteering in the first place. The commandment to bury the dead is one of the most central in Jewish law, explains Meshi-Zahav. Even a kohen, a member of the priestly cast forbidden to touch dead flesh, is allowed to bury a body if it is otherwise left unattended.”
A strong example of ZAKA’s dedication and professionalism is the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10. The plane crashed near the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, six minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people aboard. Two of the passengers were Israeli: Avraham Matzliah and Shimon Reem.
Initially, Ethiopian authorities prevented ZAKA workers from visiting the crash scene. After the intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ZAKA finally succeeded. In June, ZAKA volunteers discovered the remains of Reem, and in September, six months after the crash, they confirmed that the remains of Matzliah had been identified. It is hard to exaggerate the comfort families derive when burial of their loved ones is made possible, and when they have a gravesite to visit.
I asked the operations commander of ZAKA for the northern region, Yechezkel (Hezki) Farkash, to share his thoughts and feelings. Here is what he wrote:
“It is hard for me to explain what ZAKA is to those who are not familiar with the work we do, for reasons I will explain later. But first, I will explain what ZAKA is for me.
“I am Chezki [Yechezkel] Farkash, 39 years old, married to Henny and father of six. I am a Hasid and belong to Sart Vizhnitz [a branch of the Vizhnitz Hasidim]. I was born in Haifa to very religious Hasidic parents, who taught me when I was young to love the Holy One Blessed be He, and to love humanity.”
Regarding terrorist attacks, Farkash said: “My first event was in 2003 – the terrorist attack on Bus 37 in Haifa. I was a young yeshiva student, and my wife and I had one child. I raced from one accident scene to another, from one disaster to another, involving unnatural deaths, with honor and respect [for the dead].
“I arrived at terrible hair-raising scenes from which everyone else fled – even rescuers and first responders. We remained, a handful of ZAKA volunteers, despite the horrors and ghastly sights. But every time, I recalled these words: people were created in the image of G-d, and our mission was to honor and respect the dead.
“One day, I came to a particularly awful event that cannot be described in words; I will try to describe what my eyes saw, gently.
“It was an ordinary apartment building in a neighborhood where a lot of happy, joyous young people lived. The neighbors who lived there smelled a particularly strong odor in the stairway. At first they thought it was the rotting body of a dead animal, in the building’s storeroom. One day passed, then another, and the smell grew stronger and stronger, and finally became unbearable. They called the police, and when the police came, they went door to door, asking each occupant if everything was all right, until they came to a door on the first floor, where nobody answered, and after several attempts they decided to break down the door. When they opened it, what they saw was horrendous.
“An 80-year-old woman who lived in the apartment, single, without children, was found on the floor of her apartment, lying on the floor in the entry, dead. It was impossible even to identify who she was. She had lost any semblance of humanity. There were cakes in the oven that she had baked several days earlier. The radio was on and played happy songs.
“It is very hard to explain to others what it means to find a human being in the worst possible state of sub-humanity and decay. The house was full of flies and all sorts of crawling things. Everyone had fled the building because of the terrible strong smell.
“But we ZAKA volunteers arrived at the scene, with holy respect. We wore special clothes, with masks on our faces. We went up the stairs and smelled the awful odor. I remember murmuring to myself a small prayer, may I not see something too terrible – but fate decided otherwise.
“After I saw what had happened in the apartment, I turned to the other ZAKA volunteers who had come with me, and told them, ‘anyone who feels that this is too difficult can turn around and go downstairs and help with other things.’ We stood on the stairway, we looked at one another with tears in our eyes – but no one left. Everyone said firmly that they wanted to deal with this and they will not give up.
“With holy respect, we entered the apartment and began to engage in ‘honor and respect for the dead.’ As we worked, tears fell from my eyes, and I hummed to myself the prayer [from Shema Koleinu], ‘Do not cast us aside when we are old….when our strength is gone, do not abandon us.’ I felt that I was going to vomit, and stepped aside for a few moments, to the window in the adjacent room, to breathe some fresh air. In a few minutes, I returned and continued with our holy task.
“In a short time we finished cleaning up the apartment, as if nothing had happened there, as if everything was new, and together with the ‘angels’ who accompanied me, we went down to the street level, where we saw the police and the neighbors who gave us a round of applause for the holy task we had undertaken.
“Near the police cruiser stood a man who sobbed and would not be comforted. I took off my ZAKA uniform and asked a police officer, ‘who is this man?’ He said, ‘It is the dead grandmother’s brother.’
“I went up to him and asked if I could hug him, and told him I wanted to listen to what he had to say. This person, whom I did not know, stepped aside with me and hugged me fiercely and simply sobbed, without saying a word. I cried with him for long minutes, until he calmed down somewhat and then I told him: ‘We believe that everything is Divine will, decreed from heaven, we cannot understand what fate has decided for us. But I can promise you that now, after the ZAKA volunteers have been here, she [the deceased] is smiling and is on her way to the next world, where everything is good, everything is honorable.’
“That evening, I gathered together all the ZAKA volunteers who had dealt with this horrible scene, along with Police Superintendent Anshel Friedman and several professionals, and I asked each ZAKA volunteer to tell us, from his perspective, what he felt at the scene. ‘What went through your mind? What was the most difficult?’ All this, in order to liberate them from the traumatic feelings and thoughts.
“It is impossible for me to describe the tears and the feelings each volunteer described. We broke out in song, with closed eyes, and sang late into the night, until we felt strengthened – and then each of us went home. This is only a small part of the stories that we ZAKA volunteers deal with every day.
“One of the tools, or the ‘medicines,’ with which we confront the trauma and hardship is to talk about them, to share them – and mainly, to sing. Singing together liberates the heart and frees it from the hardships, and this truly helps us to deal with the most awful of events.
“Yehuda [Meshi-Zahav], with his sensitive heart, gave us a great deal of energy and strength, to handle disasters and confront them, as heroes and as angels. He accompanies all of us, in every step we take, and cares for our needs just like a father cares for his children.
“So if someone asks me, what is ZAKA for me, I would tell him that it is true charitable lovingkindness. I receive no compensation from the deceased for whom we care. I have immense satisfaction, and this keeps me smiling and willing to live in this world, with all its troubles.
“Today I am the operations commander of ZAKA in the North, and I personally accompany our volunteers, from Hadera northward. I am in close contact with their families, accompany them to every incident, and we are like one big family.
“From time to time I organize resilience workshops for them, where I bring professionals who help our volunteers deal with the awful sights that race through their minds, and help them return to routine life. Every volunteer who experiences great difficulties knows that they have a place in my heart and that I will always be there for them, to deal with the difficulties together.
“I want to say to everyone that I am not a robot, I am a sensitive person like everyone else. I am emotional when my son comes home from school and recounts that he is struggling, or that something has happened – and I sit down with him and try to reassure him. My children know that their father is a hero, that he does hard things that nobody else is able to do. I try hard not to have them see the news on TV and ensure that they should not be exposed to my [volunteer] activities. On Shabbat I sit with my children and talk to them for many hours, go over their school studies with them and I set aside everything I have experienced during the week in order to recharge my batteries and gather energy with my sweet children.
“I also pray that the terrible scenes we encounter will stop, and that we should hear of no more tragedies. But one thing I can say: the 3,500 ZAKA volunteers throughout the country are ready to help at any event, with a full heart, in order to respect every single person, whatever their race, creed or religion.”
What makes these ultra-Orthodox volunteers uniquely suited for the gory task they undertake? I got one answer from my colleague at the Neaman Institute, Dr. Reuven Gal, formerly chief behavioral scientist for the IDF.
Gal told me that he learned from his experience in the army that religious soldiers, in general, show higher resilience toward combat reactions. “In addition to trust in their commanders and their fellow combatants – two of the most important resilience resources in combat – these ‘soldiers’ have an extra one: trust in God,” said Gal. He also gave me research showing that in the Yom Kippur War, soldiers who fought with units other than their regular one, or who changed teams during combat, suffered far more post-traumatic stress disorder than those who fought with their comrades. Stress is far more bearable if you are with those you know, trust and love, who have your back.
The ZAKA volunteers experience unimaginable trauma, but as Farkash noted, gain immense support from their fellow volunteers. They draw resilience from each other and bounce back to serve at the next disaster site.
Frequently, Masorti, Reform and non-religious Israelis become frustrated and angry with the ultra-Orthodox groups. With 16 Knesset seats (seven for United Torah Judaism, and nine for Shas, considered Sephardi Haredi), they wield political power and use it skillfully for their own ends.
Perhaps, in fairness, we can salute and praise them too, for ZAKA – for vital good deeds the rest of us could not and would not undertake.
ZAKA picks up the pieces. For that, we are deeply grateful to them.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at