A schedule fixed by the angel of death

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav evolved from an anti-Zionist firebrand in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood into the founder of ZAKA, a unique rescue and recovery organization.

ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of ZAKA, at the site of the June 2003 bus bombing in Jerusalem.

In a special Knesset gathering in November, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz presented an award to ZAKA Rescue and Recovery Organization founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav for raising awareness and promoting road safety.

The moment was noteworthy not just because it acknowledged ZAKA’s role in responding to thousands of car accidents and encouraging safer driving, but also because it underlined the warm relationship between Israel’s secular officials and Meshi-Zahav, an ultra-Orthodox (haredi) former anti-Zionist agitator.

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.

ZAKA rescue scene
Photo by courtesy of ZAKA.
ZAKA members took part in the recovery operation at the site of the burned bus in the Carmel Forest fire.

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 (a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victims Identification). 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.”

Today, some 1,500 Jewish, Muslim and Druze ZAKA volunteers carry out lifesaving, rescue and recovery operations in Israel and around the world, garnering numerous awards including a citation from New York City for assistance following 9/11. The organization was one of those from Israel that was active in Haiti after the earthquake. Awareness of ZAKA’s mission has grown in Israel and abroad.

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.”

The Carmel Forest fire earlier this month was a case in point. ZAKA volunteers rappelled down a hill to reach the site of the burned bus carrying prison guards and sift through the charred wreckage to uncover all human remains before the victims were buried. Another team worked to identify the charred bodies. “The people of Israel owe you much gratitude for the holy work that you have been doing,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai told them.

While awaiting better times with perfect faith, Meshi-Zahav remains dedicated to his twin missions of disaster response and bettering society. “In the same way that enemies don’t distinguish between different types of Jews, we too must be for everyone,” he says. “Our guiding principle is our belief that all men were made in the image of God.”

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.