Israeli rescue organization ZAKA is now training volunteers from minority communities to be first responders in the wake of tragedy.

Bedouin ZAKA volunteer

A Bedouin volunteer joining one of the four new Arab units in ZAKA.

For 15 years, Israel’s unique voluntary rescue organization, ZAKA, has been sending volunteers to work alongside law enforcement and emergency personnel following acts of terrorism, accidents and natural disasters across the globe.

Now ZAKA is expanding its network within Israel to better serve Arab, Bedouin, Circassian and Druze populations. Two new units in the north and two in the south will be staffed by members of those minority communities, after receiving training that will be adapted to their own religious and ethnic customs.

Until ZAKA (a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification) was founded in 1995 by Jerusalemite Yehuda Meshi-Zahav in response to a spate of terrorist attacks, the Jewish state had no organized system for dealing with victims’ body parts and blood, considered sacred by Jewish law.

More volunteers means a more perfect world

Fifty-one-year-old Meshi-Zahav tells ISRAEL21c that ZAKA also handles bodies of non-Jewish victims – even terrorists – with sensitivity to cultural and religious principles However, he is eager to have volunteers from Israel’s non-Jewish sectors become full participants.

“We believe everyone wants to do good work,” he says. “Adding as many people as possible to our volunteering circle is a means to perfecting our world.”

Meshi-Zahav was a yeshiva student when he witnessed the first bus bombing just outside Jerusalem in 1989. He and some other students ran to help, but could not offer much assistance without expertise in forensics or first aid. “I went home and the images kept replaying in my mind like a horror movie,” he recalls.

Over the next six years, he built up the basis for what would become the world’s only Jewish organization of its kind.

Today, about 1,500 ZAKA volunteers – including canine, diving, and rappelling specialists – take responsibility for ensuring that all human remains are treated in accordance with religious guidelines. The only organization authorized by the Israeli police to handle recovery and body part identification, ZAKA participates in search-and-rescue missions and firefighting efforts, international disaster relief, and accident-prevention programs.

Government-sponsored training for minorities

Although small ZAKA units are already active among the Bedouin population in the south and the Druze communities of the north, this marks the first time ZAKA’s expansion is being sponsored by the government. Galil Ayoob Kara, a Druze member of Israel’s parliament and Deputy Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, has termed the arrangement “holy work” and a critical step toward equality for all Israeli citizens.

Meshi-Zahav looks to the project as a way of breaking barriers and building bridges between Israeli Jews and minorities, which is one of his priorities. “We are open to all: Religious and not, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Arabs,” he says. “Our guiding principle is our belief that man was made in the image of God.”

An ultra-Orthodox Jew with side curls and a black skullcap, Meshi-Zahav has been present at some grim scenes as a result of his work with ZAKA.

ZAKA assisted at the sites of the World Trade Center and Mumbai terrorist attacks; the Columbia space shuttle tragedy in Texas; the carnage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; synagogue bombings in Istanbul; the tsunami aftermath in Southeast Asia; plane crashes in Phuket, Thailand, Mexico, and Namibia; the earthquake in Haiti; and a recent murder of a Jewish traveler in the Ukraine, among other tragedies.

The United Nations officially recognized ZAKA as an international humanitarian volunteer organization in 2005.

UN recognition opens doors

“UN recognition is extremely important in our overseas operations,” explains ZAKA spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman. “That recognition allows us to go into all areas, even countries where Israel does not have diplomatic relations. The humanitarian message of ZAKA is the key that opens doors to all communities.”

ZAKA recently established International Rescue branches in foreign countries including Mexico, France and Hong Kong, with another planned for Kiev to serve Eastern Europe. Community volunteers are to be trained to offer an immediate professional response to a disaster in their region, before Israel-based volunteers can arrive.

The four new Israeli units will begin gearing up this winter. Gadi Kellerman is working with about 15 Bedouins in the south, recruited mostly from among border patrol and police officers. Hezki Farkash is setting up the new Druze units in Beit Jann and Yirka up north.

“In the north and the south, our goal is to keep growing the number of volunteers from the Druze and Bedouin communities,” stresses Meshi-Zahav.