48 Hours, 4 Continents: All In a Day’s Work For ZAKA Rescue Unit

“The death of His faithful ones is grievous in Hashem’s sight.” Psalms 116:15 (The Israel Bible™)

While most of the world was enjoying a break from routine over the seasonal holidays and year-end festivities, the ZAKA International Rescue Unit was active across four continents, coordinating dozens of different people and organizations to help others in their time of need.

ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi Zahav described the mission.

“On days such as these, with so many incidents around the world, our goal is to overcome the dozens of obstacles and bureaucratic hurdles that make life so difficult for people in their hour of need,” Zahav said in a statement. “In this way, we can fulfill our mission of assisting any Jew who needs help, wherever he is  in the world, and to honor the deceased and ensure that they receive a full Jewish burial in keeping with the halacha (Torah law).”

Uman, Ukraine

Last Friday morning, the Bornstein family from Jerusalem, on a visit to Uman, Ukraine to pay their respects at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, called the emergency services when they realized that their two-month-old daughter Feige was not responding. Tragically, after resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful, the baby was pronounced dead. Local police demanded an autopsy, to rule out criminal activity, even though initial signs suggested it was a crib death.

ZAKA Uman volunteers, with the assistance of local people from the Breslov community in Uman, worked tirelessly together with the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Mr. Eli Belotsercovsky, and the local governor, to avoid an autopsy. After much negotiation, they succeeded and the body was flown home two days later, together with her grieving family, and transferred from Ben-Gurion Airport in the ZAKA ambulance for burial in Jerusalem.

Transferring the baby’s body at Ben Gurion (Photo courtesy ZAKA)

Sochi, Russia

A few hours after the tragedy in Uman, two Chabad yeshiva graduates were injured in a road accident. Shalom Shapira was killed and his friend Shimon Ben Irina (Nisanov) was seriously injured and hospitalized in Sochi.

They had been traveling with about 20 Jewish University from Moscow on their way from Rostov to Sochi, Russia. Medics at the scene pronounced Shapira dead and took his injured friend to the hospital. Thanks to the continuous and combined efforts of the ZAKA commander in Russia, Rabbi Yehoshua Deitsch, together with Rabbi Chaim Dantzinger of Rostov, working with the local authorities, an autopsy was averted and Shapira was buried on Sunday.

France

During the weekend, an Israeli who had been living in France for many years contacted ZAKA with an urgent request for help. He needed to travel back to Israel for cancer treatment and had booked tickets for his wife and children to accompany him, only to realize that three of his children had no passports.

The ZAKA International Rescue Unit entered the frame and, using their contacts in the Israeli Ministry of Interior, managed to secure one-time entry permits for the children. This allowed the family to fly to Israel, despite the lack of passports for their children. Once in Israel, the children were issued with passports and the father received the required medical treatment.

Johannesburg, South Africa

At the end of Shabbat, the ZAKA International Rescue Unit headquarters in Jerusalem received another request for help – this time from South Africa, where heavy rains and stormy weather had left thousands homeless in Johannesburg. The local emergency services, who were familiar with ZAKA from joint exercises and other natural disasters in the region, knew that there are dozens of trained local ZAKA volunteers to call upon in times of emergency. Forty ZAKA volunteers under the command of ZAKA South Africa commander Daniel Foreman, working together with the local Home Front Command, erected tents and other facilities for the homeless.

Crash in Costa Rica (Photo courtesy ZAKA)

Costa Rica

Earlier this week, a private jet carrying nine Jewish passengers, another passenger and two crew members crashed shortly after take-off from Punta Islet to the capital city of San Jose, Costa Rica.  All the passengers were killed. The plane crashed in a wooded area, making the task of collecting the remains complex and prolonged.

Crash in Costa Rica (Photo courtesy ZAKA)

When the news arrived at ZAKA headquarters, ZAKA International Rescue Unit Chief Officer Mati Goldstein opened a special WhatsApp group with all the relevant bodies, including the Costa Rica burial society, local Chabad emissary Rabbi Levi Wilhelm and a ZAKA volunteer from Mexico who was in close contact with the local authorities. ZAKA volunteers from New York and Miami, home to the families of the dead, were also added to the group.

Due to changes in the passenger list shortly before take-off, it took many hours to identify

ZAKA in Miami (Photo courtesy ZAKA)

exactly who was in the crashed plane – including five members of the Steinberg family from New York, Father Bruce and mother Erin, and their three children Matthew, William and Zachary, as well as Lesley and Mitchell Weiss and their daughter Chana from Miami.

The Jerusalem-based ZAKA International Rescue Unit, which has been in operation for over a decade, operates a specially trained team of volunteer paramedics and search and rescue professionals who are on call 24/7, ready to respond in the fastest possible time to major international mass casualty incidents, wherever they may occur. Under the direction of Chief Operations Officer Mati Goldstein, the ZAKA International Rescue Unit works in close cooperation with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the IDF and other government bodies.

 

ZAKA’s assistance at major international terror attacks (eg Mombasa, Istanbul and Taba) and natural disasters (eg the tsunami and the New Orleans Katrina hurricane) led the United Nations in 2005 to recognize ZAKA as an international volunteer humanitarian organization (one of only three Israeli organizations to hold this status). This UN recognition enables ZAKA to offer emergency assistance even before the official delegation has left Israel, or the host country has formally asked for help or even when the country has no diplomatic ties with Israel. In January 2016, ZAKA was granted advisory status at the UN as an official body, one of only three Israeli NGOs to receive this coveted status, and in September 2016, the ZAKA light rescue training course received INSARAG recognition.

In order to shorten the response time to international mass casualty incidents, ZAKA trains emergency response teams in local communities worldwide. There are over 600 volunteers in more than 20 countries around the world. The volunteers participate in a five-day basic training program that includes certification as emergency medical first responders; security preparedness and response; dealing with mass casualty incidents; honoring the dead; working with forensics and simulation emergency drills.