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For Zaka Rescue Volunteers, Grisly Deaths Are a Part of Life

September 30, 2003
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“When I shower, it usually takes me seven minutes,” says Hayim Foxman, a volunteer with Zaka, the fervently Orthodox rescue and cleanup organization that collects victims’ body parts after terrorist attacks. “But after I return home from a terrorist attack, it takes me an hour and 20 minutes.”

Foxman pauses. “And I don’t know if I am soaked from the water or my tears,” he says.

Married and a father of four, Foxman says his work can be emotionally draining for his entire family.

“When I return home after a terrorist attack, one of my children comes and says, ‘Daddy, look what I did in kindergarten today!’ And I respond, ‘Say thank God you are living. What do I care what you did in kindergarten? Say you are happy you’re alive.’ My kids look at me like, ‘What happened to you?’ “

Today, three years after the Palestinians launched their intifada against Israel, Foxman — like most Israelis has acclimated somewhat to life under the strain of terrorism.

Foxman and his wife have a system for dealing with the intense emotions that follow terrorist attacks.

“I have come to understand that when I come back from an attack, I am extremely agitated for a few days,” Foxman explains. “My wife knows that when I come back from an attack, it’s better to speak with me about what happened, so that I will free myself. It’s very hard for her to hear these things, but she knows that listening makes it much easier for me.”

The Foxmans’ experience is typical of that of Zaka volunteer families.

According to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who founded the organization in 1989, volunteers — there are currently 900 — and their families commonly suffer from post-traumatic stress.

“You’re talking about humans, not angels,” Meshi-Zahav says. “There are people who saw one awful image and became traumatized for the rest of their lives.”

In addition to doing rescue and cleanup after terrorist attacks, Zaka volunteers work at the scene of car crashes and building collapses around the country.

The organization’s Hesed Shel Emet division — which translates as “true righteousness” — deals with the fatalities from these incidents. Volunteers gather the remains of bodies, identify as many parts as they can and bury as much of a victim’s body as possible — including blood — in one grave.

The Hatzalah Mehira — or “rapid response” — division is an emergency response squad of volunteers on motorcycles who arrive at the scene of incidents to administer first aid until ambulances can arrive. Usually, they’re at the scene within four minutes of the incident.

The Itur Vehilutz — or “search and rescue” — division specializes in the rescue of people trapped in cars and buildings.

All volunteers in the Hesed Shel Emet division are fervently Orthodox men. The other divisions include women and non-Orthodox Jews.

Zaka volunteers say their faith in Judaism gives them the strength to keep going — and is their reason for volunteering in the first place.

The commandment to bury the dead is one of the most central in Jewish law, explains Meshi-Zahav. Even a kohen, a member of the priestly cast forbidden to touch dead flesh, is allowed to bury a body if it is otherwise left unattended.

“When the Jews left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, the Jews began to sing because Egyptians were drowning,” Meshi-Zahav explains. For decades, Egyptians “killed Jews, made them suffer. But God said, ‘Don’t sing, even though they caused you grief. You can’t sing, you must give respect.’ “

A dignified end to life is a universal right, Meshi-Zahav says.

Bringing this dignity to victims often triggers intense feelings of grief among those collecting body parts, but it also has had a positive impact on volunteers’ lives.

“I value life more,” Foxman says. “I know that when a person comes home from work, we need to thank God that we returned.”

Another Zaka volunteer agreed: “You have to make use of every moment that you get.”

When Zaka first started, volunteers’ wives had a difficult time coping, and many of those married to Hesed Shel Emet volunteers asked their husbands to give up the work.

“They complained their husbands were becoming apathetic or agitated,” Meshi-Zahav says.

Zaka developed a psychology program for volunteers. But nobody sought counseling in the program — apparently for fear of seeming weak-kneed — and the problems persisted.

Zaka then adapted its psychological counseling program to 20-person workshops. In groups, the volunteers “can see that everyone has the same problems, and they can open up,” Meshi-Zahav says.

In addition to psychological counseling for Zaka volunteers, there also is a support group for volunteers’ wives.

The women’s support group holds a national conference every Chanukah, as well as smaller regional gatherings throughout the year, according to its founder, Yehudit Weingarten.

Zaka also holds two annual family days, where volunteers and their families come to relax and have fun. Zaka volunteers say they find the programs helpful.

“In the beginning, it was extremely difficult,” says Shimmy Grossman, who describes one particularly gruesome experience.

“I was at my sister’s house and we heard an explosion on the street right under her house. I went downstairs and began taking care of matters. Suddenly, I saw the head of a baby. It made me crazy. For a full week, I was delirious and hallucinating.”

After psychological counseling, Grossman got past his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

To deal with what they’ve seen, one husband-and-wife team of Zaka volunteers uses gallows humor.

“We try not to repeat it outside the house,” laughs the wife, who asked not to be named. She says her teenage children also have developed this bizarre sense of humor.

“It’s a family thing,” she says.

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