Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder of the ZAKA emergency service, has died, it was announced Wednesday, a year after attempting to take his own life amid an investigation into numerous allegations of rape and sexual assault against him, including of minors.
Meshi-Zahav was found unconscious in his apartment last April. A source familiar with the matter said he tried to hang himself.
He remained unconscious in Jerusalem’s Herzog Medical Center until his death at the age of 62.
Announcing his death, the hospital said his condition had deteriorated in recent days before he died overnight.
According to Channel 13 news, Meshi-Zahav was set to be buried later Wednesday at Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives Cemetery. The hospital said his family asked that the funeral remain private.
The allegations against Meshi-Zahav were among a number of public sexual abuse accusations against several leading figures in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community within a number of months.
According to reports, Meshi-Zahav’s suicide attempt came as it became clear that police planned to arrest him because a number of the cases under investigation were within the statute of limitations.
There were reportedly dozens of additional complaints against Meshi-Zahav that were not within the statute of limitations but could be used as proof of his serial behavior.
The attempted suicide took place hours before Channel 12’s investigative program, “Uvda,” was scheduled to air a report revealing additional allegations against Meshi-Zahav.
The investigative program said police in 2013 had known of at least 20 cases of sexual assault by Meshi-Zahav against minors over the years, but never made the decision to press the issue and formally investigate him.
In a suicide note reportedly found in his home, Channel 12 said Meshi-Zahav wrote: “A pile of lies. They said I was a pedophile and a necrophiliac — the only thing missing was cannibalism,” apparently referring to the new allegations against him.
The note, said to be two pages long, also denied all the allegations against him, labeling an earlier report on Meshi-Zahav’s exploits “libel.”
On March 11, the Haaretz daily published a report in which Meshi-Zahav was accused by six people of sexual assault, rape, and abuse. The expose said there were likely many more cases.
The allegations against Meshi-Zahav were made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events.
Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money, and even the organization he headed to commit sexual assault, according to the report.
Of the first six allegations reported, the earliest was from 1983, and the latest was from 2011. The report added that many residents of several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem knew of Meshi-Zahav’s actions but did not say anything or report him to authorities.
Days before the initial Haaretz report, Meshi-Zahav was declared a winner of the Israel Prize’s lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Israeli society. Then-education minister Yoav Gallant announced that the prestigious prize would go to Meshi-Zahav for his decades of work in ZAKA. In 2003, he lit a torch at Israel’s national Independence Day celebrations.
A day after the report came out, Meshi-Zahav announced that he was stepping down from his role in ZAKA and giving up the Israel Prize.
He was a vocal critic of some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership during the pandemic, as some prominent community figures downplayed the virus, including in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.