Jewish tradition places great importance on treating the deceased with utmost dignity, the body being G-d's creation and the soul's dwelling. Taking care of the dead is known in Hebrew as "Chesed shel emet" an altruistic kindness that the beneficiary cannot repay.
Preparing the dead for burial by the Chevra Kadisha burial society is no easy task, even under normal circumstances, certainly not under the extreme and horrific conditions of brutal terrorist attacks or gruesome accident.
Unfortunately, a highly dedicated organization in Israel is all too familiar with the job.
Formed in 1995, ZAKA is a Hebrew acronym for "Identification of Victims of Disaster." They are often seen wearing neon yellow vests in the aftermath of an attack, at Tel Aviv's Dolphin-arium, at Jerusalem Sbarrro, at Netanya's Park Hotel, painstakingly searching through the devastation and gathering shreds of human remains. Terrorism has proven the mettle of the ZAKA emergency medical organization.
Last to leave, ZAKA crews are often also the first to arrive in the critical moments right after an attack. Trained paramedics, they are connected by a network of beepers, walkie-talkies and cell phones. Motor scooters enable them to cut through traffic and rush to the scene.
In the chaos, they administer first-aid and guide Magen Dovid Adom ambulance crews to the most critical victims. It is a bone-chilling experience. Many ZAKA volunteers have had the unenviable task of cradling a dying child in their arms or a severely maimed victim crying for help.
As ambulance sirens fade into the distance, they begin the grisly task of gathering limbs that can be rushed to the hospitals and reattached; and body parts, blood, hair and whatever remains of the victims (Jew or non-Jew) for proper burial.
Beyond Israel, ZAKA members assisted in the recovery after the bombing in Kenya, and helped the search and identify mission for Columbia's crew's remains.
Arriving last month in Houston ZAKA's Yisrael Stefansky said, "We unfortunately have much experience in this area from the terrorist attacks. Searching for body parts, we can identify what others cannot."
ZAKA volunteers are not macabre thrill-seekers. They are ordinary people who join to help others. Almost all of ZAKA's 600 plus volunteers are otherwise gainfully employed.
"All volunteers are family-oriented people and have jobs and a stabilized life, which is critical to this job," says Talia Zaks, Deputy Director of ZAKA's General Projects and Inter-national Affairs. " ZAKA is open to anyone from all sectors, religious, secular, men and women."
A ZAKA volunteer must undergo rigorous training that tests one's physical, as well as emotional fortitude. ZAKA is part of Israel's security system, and volunteers are trained by the police and Magen David Adom in proper management of forensic evidence and religious management of the deceased.
"According to Jewish tradition, it is disrespectful to leave behind any body part, including blood," says ZAKA member Isail Hassa. "All body parts must be buried, preferably within 24 hours of death."
Yaakov Ury is typical. The grandfatherly Jerusalem native owns a pizza parlor. Three years ago, he personally experienced a bombing at Jerusalem's Machaneh Yehuda outdoor market. "I stood there traumatized, not knowing what to do. So I decided to join ZAKA."
Recently fund-raising in America, Ury showed a scrapbook of ZAKA's work. One photo shows volunteers leaning over a balcony to scrape flesh from the wall. "Human remains splatter onto trees, roofs, and balconies," says Ury. "We use long ladders to gather the pieces, and then match them like a puzzle. We have experience, and we also use DNA tests."
What happens to the bodies of suicide bombers? Ury says, "The Torah teaches us that no matter the evil, they are still human beings, created in G-d's image. We treat the bodies respectfully, put them in plastic bags, and transfer them through the army."
ZAKA volunteers are at high risk, and may have to dodge snipers' bullets and secondary "human bombs" lurking in the shadows after an initial attack, who explode themselves in the midst of the volunteers, police, soldiers, rescue workers and innocent bystanders.
The possibility of saving lives is what keeps ZAKA volunteers going through the horrific carnage and danger. "I've saved babies who've stopped breathing," says Bentzion Oiring. "Saving a person's life gives you satisfaction to keep you going when we must clean the scene of the next terrorist attack."
ZAKA receives no government funding, and relies on private donors, in Israel and abroad, for its equipment, ambulances, yellow vests, the plastic containers to collect blood and body tissue, the cell phones and the body bags.
ZAKA volunteers' devotion has earned them respect among all segments of the Israeli public. But Yaakov Ury looks forward to spending more time serving pizza to his customers. "Everyone wants their organization to grow and develop," he says of ZAKA, "but we pray that ours will go out of business."
ZAKA's U.S. address: ZAKA Rescue & Recovery, 500 8th Avenue, Suite 905, NY, NY, 10018. Tel: 212-868-2960, Ext. 104 Fax: 212-868-0389. Donations are tax-deductible.
"These mitzvot are beyond measure: escorting and burying the dead."