|David Rawlings & ZAKA Team|
The following information was posted on Israel 21C by Abigail Klein Leichman on 21 December 2010. Do visit their excellent site for many other interesting reports about Israel.
|Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, Founder of ZAKA|
Since founding ZAKA in 1995, the 51-year-old father of seven has gained a reputation as an international rescue authority and as one of Israel's greatest champions of tolerance among both Jews and Arabs. His post-9/11 work in New York earned him an invitation to participate in a special commemoration on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attack, and he chose to take along Sheikh Akel Elatrash, commander of ZAKA's Bedouin Unit in the Negev. "We slept in the same room, ate our meals together, and toured Manhattan together," Meshi-Zahav tells ISRAEL21c. With one sporting a black velvet skullcap and long gray sidelocks and the other in traditional Arab robe and headdress, the two caused quite a stir. "People asked if we were part of a film," he recalls.
Though Meshi-Zahav's life story could easily be mistaken for a screenplay, he is as real as the flesh and blood he encounters at the scenes of accidents, crimes and terrorist attacks. Brought up in the insular Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, he was ingrained to distrust "the other" and to disdain Zionism as evil.
Arrested 34 Times for Anti-Zionist Agitation
"The haredi community is set up with 'walls' to protect us from outside influences" Meshi-Zahav says, speaking in Hebrew translated by his foreign media spokeswoman, Lydia Weitzman, and ZAKA development director David Rose. "I never knew there were Jews who act and behave differently and that they are also good people." The 11th generation Jerusalemite was taught that there was a correct and incorrect way to do things, "and if we did something the incorrect way, we were called Zionists." This same man, who proudly lit the torch ushering in the State of Israel's Independence Day celebrations in 2003, was arrested 34 times at anti-Zionist demonstrations as a youth.
At some point, the young Meshi-Zahav developed an affinity for the police who apprehended him time and again. "I began to see them as regular people who wanted to go home to their families after a day's work," he relates. "I started to see that a lot of things could be settled more easily by just sitting and talking to one another."
With this revelation as a backdrop, on July 6, 1989 Meshi-Zahav heard the explosion and subsequent screams emanating from a bus driven into a ravine by a terrorist. He and some friends rushed to the scene, determined to help tend the wounded and collect scattered body parts and blood for burial.
Though his mother had set a volunteering example with her regular visits to terminally ill patients, Meshi-Zahav knew neither first aid nor forensics. But he knew Jewish laws regarding human remains, and he discovered that no organization in Israel was authorized to do this gruesome but sacred work.
Free Access to Palestinian hospitals
His life took on a new purpose: "Even though we Israelis have different opinions about how the state should be, the time had come to live together." Over the next six years, he lay the groundwork for ZAKA--the only group of its kind worldwide, it is recognized by the United Nations as an international volunteer humanitarian organization. Donations make up most of its funding; about 10 percent of the budget comes from the government.
During the Arab uprising or intifada from 2000 to 2006, Meshi-Zahav and about 600 volunteers rarely slept, constantly on alert for the next call. Working knee-deep in blood, Meshi-Zahav was fortified by his faith. "At the time, I thought we were dealing with kavod hamet--honoring the dead. By the end, I realized that we were actually honoring the living, because a family whose loved one cannot receive a full Jewish burial has no rest."
ZAKA developed an avenue for transferring the remains of terrorists to the Palestinian Authority. "Our humanitarian message is the key that allows us to open doors to all communities," Meshi-Zahav says. "Even during [those years], we were going into Palestinian hospitals when we needed to."
|ZAKA in Haiti|
I have no strikes or vacations
"Before ZAKA, if there was a traffic accident in Israel, paramedics would take care of the injured and a private ambulance would come to take the dead...but if there were body parts, nobody collected them," says Meshi-Zahav. "The firemen would wash down all the blood and that was the end of it. Now it is in the Israeli consciousness to call us instead."
ZAKA has also changed attitudes in the haredi community, now one of its largest pools of volunteers. In the early years, Meshi-Zahav's children were derided at school for their father's close cooperation with official Israeli agencies. But even when the social pressure eased, the time pressure did not. Calls come day and night from ZAKA's hotline or from the army, emergency services, police, firefighters, Homefront Command or foreign governments.
"My typical day's schedule is not fixed by me, but by the angel of death," Meshi-Zahav says. "I have no strikes or vacations."
|ZAKA at Burned Bus in Carmel Fire|