For thousands of ZAKA volunteers, being on call means being ready to drop everything, grab their emergency medical kits and fluorescent vests and head off to the scene as fast as possible – be it a terror attack, missile strike, natural disaster, building collapse, accident or even suicide.
This state of emergency preparedness is particularly important at this time, when Israel is facing threats on all borders – from Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS in the North, Hamas and ISIS in the South and Iran to the east. Terror remains an ever-present threat in our cities and homes and the imminence of a major earthquake (which could happen anywhere in Israel and at any time) becomes closer with every new tremor.
“Being ready for whatever tomorrow brings is so much more than a slogan,” explained David Rose, International Director of ZAKA and a veteran volunteer himself. “This emergency preparedness is the lifeblood of our volunteer organization. No-one knows where the next accident or mass casualty incident will strike. What we do know is the need for speed – to arrive at the scene within the first vital minutes at an accident and the first vital 48 hours at a building collapse or natural disaster.”
Rose notes that the ZAKA volunteers in Israel have frequent training drills, to ensure they have the best equipment and to refresh their operational capabilities. “These training sessions take place not only in Israel, with all the different specialist units and in cooperation with the other emergency forces and the IDF Home Front Command, but also around the world, where ZAKA-trained local volunteers are on the ground, equipped and ready to respond.”
“For example, the ZAKA Guatemala unit was established in February 2018, when 45 volunteers from the local Jewish community and representatives from the local emergency services underwent an intensive ZAKA training course in light search and rescue.” Rose continued. “It was only a few months later, in June, that the ZAKA Guatemala unit were among the first international humanitarian organizations at the scene of the Fuego volcano eruption, putting their training to the test and helping the local emergency forces locate, rescue and recover survivors and victims from the disaster.”
On a more local level, Rose recalled: “The call can come at any time. During a wedding, a business meeting or even at the Shabbat table.” Rose is referring to a call to action for the 3,600+ highly trained volunteers in the Israel-based ZAKA Search and Rescue organization – a call to save lives or to honor the deceased. ZAKA (the Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification) deals with an average of 150 incidents of sudden death a month, from traffic accidents and suicides to building collapses and terror attacks.
After working to save lives at the scene of an accident or terror attack, the volunteers then reverse their ZAKA vests – and their mindsets – from orange to yellow, from emergency medical response to the sacred work of chesed shel emet (true virtue), clearing the scene of human remains and spilled blood to ensure a proper Jewish burial for the victims.
“We believe that man was made in the divine image,” continued Rose. “Therefore, the victim must be dealt with in a sacred way, regardless of religion or race. This is the highest form of chesed shel emet. This is true virtue, helping someone who cannot express his gratitude.”
ZAKA, founded in 1995, has grown into Israel’s predominant rescue and recovery volunteer organization, expanding over recent years to offer a wide range of specialist life-saving, rescue and recovery units. These include the Rapid Rescue Motorcycle Unit, with hundreds of motorcycles equipped with life-saving medical supplies, ridden by paramedic volunteers; the Jeep Unit, the Climbing and Rappelling Unit and the Canine Unit which allow the volunteers to reach inaccessible terrain and missing people and the Divers Unit and Jet Ski Unit for search and rescue in water. In addition, there are special units for the Bedouin and Druze communities, and a joint IDF-ZAKA unit and an Emergency Unit for the home front in times of war.
ZAKA’s reputation stretches far beyond Israel’s borders. This, thanks to the humanitarian search and rescue missions that highly-trained volunteers in the ZAKA International Rescue Unit carry out around the globe, assisting at mass casualty incidents, terror attacks, natural disasters and more.
These include, among others, the tsunami in Thailand (2004) and Japan (2011), the earthquake in Haiti (2010), Nepal (2015) and Mexico (2017) and hurricanes in New Orleans (2005), Houston and Florida (2017) and the Guatemala volcano eruption earlier this year.
ZAKA’s willingness and professional operational capability to help everyone in need, regardless of religion, race or creed, has earned the organization not just the esteem and appreciation of emergency services around the world, but also official UN recognition as an international volunteer humanitarian organization.