Kindness amid terror
by Elaine Berkowitz
Am Echad Resources
May 15, 2002
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
"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
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: ZAKA Rescue and Recovery, 500 8th Avenue, Suite
905, NY, 10018. Donations are tax-deductible.)
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Elaine Berkowitz is an editor and freelance writer. She lives in Baltimore,
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