“The call can come at any time. During a wedding, a business meeting or even at the Shabbat table,” explains David Rose, international director of ZAKA and a veteran volunteer. Rose is referring to a call to action for the 3,000-plus volunteers in the ZAKA Search and Rescue organization – a call to save lives or honor those who cannot be saved.
The ZAKA volunteers drop everything, grab their emergency medical kits and fluorescent vests and head off to the scene, as fast as possible. After working to save lives, they then reverse their ZAKA vests – and their mindsets – from orange to yellow, from emergency medical response to the sacred work of chesed shel emet, ensuring a proper Jewish burial for the victims.
And what motivates the volunteers to expose themselves, day after day, to these harrowing scenes?
“We believe that man was made in the divine image,” continues 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, true virtue, helping someone who cannot express his gratitude.”
ZAKA, the only organization in Israel with police authorization to deal with such matters, deals with 150 incidents of unnatural death a month, from traffic accidents to terror attacks.
The ZAKA volunteers, who are trained in accordance with the latest professional techniques and Jewish law, also accompany the bereaved families, notifying them of the death of their loved ones and helping with funeral and shiva logistics.
But with the mission comes the trauma and ZAKA offers emotional counseling and debriefing to the volunteers and their wives. “Talking out what you saw and did often helps get it off your chest,” notes Rose.
In one recent workshop, a ZAKA wife noted that “a melancholy atmosphere has pervaded our home. My husband returns from an emergency call extremely despondent. It’s really important that I listen to what happened, so I’m also sucked into the harsh atmosphere. I know my husband is doing holy work, but how will this affect him in the future?”
In a recent international psychologists’ conference, one session explored “the genetic code of ZAKA volunteers.” The researchers concluded the volunteers were driven by their unshakable faith, which allows them to continue functioning. The researchers also noted that volunteering and a sense of mission have become addictive for ZAKA volunteers – an addiction to doing true deeds of kindness, often under the most terrible conditions.
While the volunteers are ready to answer the call to action anytime, they are grappling with another urgent problem. Their essential walkie-talkies will no longer operate in 2018.
“The clock is ticking. We urgently need to raise $180,000 for 600 specially adapted phones, with state-of-the-art technology and GPS data to make our response even faster and more efficient,” explains Rose.
“In ZAKA, minutes save lives. Now, with the help of our friends, we have just a few days left to make sure that our volunteers can continue to receive calls for help in the new year.”
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