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Kindness Amid Terror

Elaine Berkowitz

Long after the sirens and the screams have faded and the stunned and bloody victims carted away, one group remains at the scene of a terror attack in Israel. Bearded men in neon yellow vests sort through the rubble, picking up the pieces, literally, of those who didn't survive.

Yaakov Ury is typical. The grandfatherly Jerusalem native, owner of a popular pizza parlor, began doing this gruesome work three years ago, after experiencing a bombing personally at Machaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem's outdoor market. "I just stood there like an idiot," says Ury. "I didn't know what to do. So I decided to join ZAKA."

An all-volunteer organization founded seven years ago, ZAKA is a Hebrew acronym for the phrase "Identification of Victims of Disaster." The group's purpose is to accord a proper Jewish burial to the remains of those who met their ends in natural or manmade disasters.

In this task, ZAKA members, 99 percent of whom are Orthodox, see themselves as fulfilling a great mitzva. Jewish law considers respectful treatment of the dead so important that, in the days of the Holy Temple, the High Priest, though proscribed from any contact with the dead, was nevertheless permitted to defile himself to bring even a finger to burial. In fact, the Torah reserves the phrase "kindness of truth," or ultimate, eternal kindness, to burial of the dead. Involvement in the final rites of another is by definition altruistic, a favor that can never be repaid.

About three years ago, ZAKA members began to administer first aid as well. When they realized that they often arrived at the scene of a terrorist attack before ambulances and the police, they decided to train volunteers as paramedics. Now the organization owns five motor scooters - each rear-mounted with first aid equipment - which enable its volunteers to cut through downtown Jerusalem's ever-present traffic jams to save lives.

On a recent visit to the United States to raise funds for additional scooters, Ury brought an oversized album, filled with photographs testifying to the sad necessity of the organization's work. They are clear and chilling.

"Here is where a car bomb exploded behind Machaneh Yehuda a few months ago," he says, pointing out one. "A cabinet minister's daughter was killed. She had just moved that day from the West Bank to Jerusalem in order to have peace and quiet."

He points to another photo, the wreck of a white minivan, in which Binyamin Kahane and his wife were killed, ambushed on a Shomron road.

"Look at this," he says. "A few years ago, a yeshiva student from England got lost in the Judean desert. The army gave up after three days. We went in and found his body."

There are photographs of Sbarro's after the blast there; of catastrophic car accidents; of the Versailles wedding hall, where three floors collapsed in the middle of a wedding, killing 26 people.

There's a photo of ZAKA members carrying the covered body of thirteen-year-old Kobi Mandell, killed and mutilated in a cave near Tekoa.

There's the burnt but still plush interior of the bus where the three Cohen children lost their legs, and the cloth-covered body of the Tel Aviv man who crossed the Green Line to do business with Arabs and was killed in cold blood.

One photo shows two volunteers leaning over a balcony to scrape flesh from the wall of the building. "After a bomb, human remains splatter onto the trees, roofs, and balconies," says Ury. "We use long ladders to gather the pieces, and then put them together like a puzzle. We have much experience in doing this, although sometimes we need to get DNA tests."

Ury shields women from some of the close-ups. "A woman shouldn't see these terrible things," he says. But men, too, are affected by the grisly sights.

At the Saturday night Beit Yisrael bombing, experienced ZAKA men wept to see babies in their strollers burned beyond recognition.

"Believe me," says Rabbi Ury, "it's so hard for the volunteers. But something pushes them to do this. Each volunteer feels he has to do it, and goes back again and again." He says the government provides counseling and psychological services, just as it does for victims of terror.

When asked what happens to the bodies of suicide bombers, Ury says, "The Torah teaches us that, no matter what people have done, they are still human beings, and each human is created in the image of G-d. We treat the bodies respectfully, put them in plastic bags, and give them to the army."

The devotion of ZAKA volunteers has earned the organization great praise and respect among all segments of the Israeli public. But Yaakov Ury feels he is just doing a job that needs to be done. He looks forward to spending more time serving pizza to his customers.

"Everybody wants his organization to grow and develop," he says of ZAKA, "but we are praying that we should go out of business."


ZAKA's American address is:
1303 53rd Street, Suite #170
Brooklyn, NY 11219

Home Office in Israel:
234 Yaffo Street, PO Box 36060
Jerusalem, Israel 91360
972-2-501-5120 (from the US)

Donations may be mailed to the above addresses or made via the websites and all donations are tax-deductible.

Elaine Berkowitz is an editor and freelance writer. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland

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