(JTA) — At the scene of terrorist attacks, accidents and even homicides, most Israelis are used to the sight of ZAKA volunteers — Orthodox men working to save lives or recover body parts of the dead.
What they may not know is that ZAKA, Israel’s Orthodox-run life-saving, rescue and recovery service, also has a minorities unit comprised of Bedouin, Muslim and Druse volunteers.
Started about five years ago to serve Israel’s non-Jewish communities, primarily Bedouin in the Negev and Druse in the Galilee, the minorities unit is expanding due to its success. Nearly 100 volunteers and three units will be added.
Twenty-six volunteers in two minorities units currently are among ZAKA’s 1,500 volunteers, who work in coordination with Israeli government agencies on any unnatural death – be it a car accident, terrorist bombing, murder or suicide. Trained as paramedics and in first aid, the volunteers, who are on call 24/7, attempt to revive the victims and, if unsuccessful, respectfully attend to the dead.
Sheik Jaffal Abu Sabet, who has been leading the Muslim unit in the Negev for the past 13 years, says that, just like in Jewish law, in which honoring the dead is a great mitzvah, “For us it is also a great honor."
The minorities unit also functions when religious Jews cannot, on the Sabbath and holidays. According to Jewish law, Jews may violate the Sabbath to save a life, but not to deal with the dead.
“It gives me faith and pride that they depend on me,” Abu Sabet said of the Jews he helps. “In the end we are all people — Jews, Muslims, Christians — and we all must be taken care of the same way.”
In car accidents and terrorist attacks, the police contact families. But for other unnatural deaths, it is ZAKA members who often visit the victim’s home to inform the family.
Having volunteers who hail from those communities helps, says David Rose, ZAKA’s director of international development.
“We were often the first on the scene, and the question arose about how to contact the families or deal with the families or treat the dead,” Rose said of cases involving Bedouin, Druse and Muslim victims.
Now ZAKA, which started as an ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, organization, plans to increase its Druse, Bedouin and Muslim units to 125 volunteers in five units. ZAKA views its most important task in the minorities unit as dealing with the victims themselves.
“Interestingly, at the first meeting you had Jewish rabbis telling the local imams how we deal with our dead according to Jewish law, and their local religious leaders telling the rabbis how they deal with their dead,” Rose said.
According to both Jewish and Muslim law it is important to treat the dead respectfully, whether it be covering the bodies so that others cannot see them or collecting every last body part for burial, including blood.
“In principle, they deal with it the same way,” Gadi Kellermann, chief of operations in the Negev, said of Muslim dealings with the dead. “But from an emotional point of view, it’s good for Muslim families to know that there are Muslims dealing with the victims from the start.”