ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi Zahav describes sparingly and with restraint the things he and thousands of his volunteers at ZAKA do.
ZAKA is a haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) organization that rescues, identifies, and traces Jewish disaster victims in Israel and all over the world under sometimes virtually impossible conditions. Such a mission requires love of one’s fellow man, great empathy, faith, and a belief that good will come of it.
It requires Zahav, a man with impeccable curly white payess (sidecurls).
Two months ago, following a four-year struggle, ZAKA won recognition as an official UN consultant and observer.
The eventual decision was taken unanimously by a special UN committee composed of representatives of 19 countries, including Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba, Turkey, China, Russia, Pakistan, Uruguay, Burundi, Greece, the US, and Israel.
“Globes”: Did Iran and Pakistan also vote in favor?
Zahav: “There was no opposition, not even one country.
We sent our representative, who met with every one of the committee members. The Iranians asked us if the report that ZAKA treats Jews first and Arabs later at terrorist events was true.
We said that they hadn’t read it correctly. We treat the victim first, and then the murderer, regardless of nationality. They realized this, and voted in favor.”
About-face: From extremist haredi operations officer to national hero
Once upon a time, Zahav was the operations officer of the Eda Haredit extremist haredi group.
He led demonstrations against Sabbath desecration, burnt Israeli flags, fasted and wore mourning clothes on Israel Independence Day, illegally removed dead bodies from the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute to prevent autopsies from being performed and put mice into the pathologists’ rooms, and sneaked onto archeological sites in order to prevent archeological excavations.
Since then, however, Zahav has been honored by being asked to light a torch on Mt. Herzl while calling aloud in a clear voice, “For the glory of the state of Israel.” His grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Sheinberger, the mythological leader of the Eda Haredit and a fanatical opponent of the founding of Israel, refused to speak with Zahav for the last four years of his life. For Sheinberger, what Zahav did was a desecration of God’s name.
The change in Zahav began on July 6, 1989, when a terrorist blew up a bus on the 405 route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It happened on a road in front of the Telz-Stone yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) in Neva Ilan.
Zahav and his friends wanted to see what was happening, “and then, when the dismembered bodies were laid out before my eyes, when the sirens were echoing among the smoky fragments of the bus, when the bloodstained clothes were scattered over the area, when entire families were broken and erased in an instant, I realized that the quarrels between us were meaningless.
The type of skullcap you wear and the kind of clothes you wear pale in comparison with the real war we’re faced with. The Arab enemy doesn’t distinguish between the blood of a haredi, a secular person, and someone who’s modern Orthodox. We’re all connected. There’s no right or left.
Everyone’s pain is the same. That was the moment when I crossed the lines and abandoned the ideology of haredi Judaism,” he later said, just before lighting the torch in honor of the ZAKA volunteers in 2003.
“Since then,” he says today, “I have been repenting. I put my efforts in the right place.” That also includes severe criticism of the leaders of the community he is identified with. “I didn’t see the haredi leaders with the bereaved families,” he said during one of the IDF campaigns in the Gaza Strip.
“There were 20,000 people at the funeral, but I didn’t see black clothes there. There might have been haredim here or there, but when we want to, we can fill any place with black clothes.”
Zahav, 57, exudes authority and wisdom, youthfulness and sympathy. His family has lived in Jerusalem for 11 generations (before Herzl, he once said).
He is the father of seven children and a grandfather. He lives in the Sanhedria neighborhood, and leads over 3,000 ZAKA volunteers.
At the most difficult moments, when the volunteers can no longer bear the emotional and physical load, he is called to the scene – unless he is there already. When things are the most difficult, he stops, hugs, and begins to sing – one song after another, and then the work starts, with the tears.
Sometimes, there is no choice, he has to dance, because that is the way to set in motion the superhuman capabilities of his volunteers. The organization is huge, spanning Israel and the globe, but it has barely 11 especially modestly paid positions.
The organization’s annual budget is NIS 18 million, mostly from donations consisting mainly of equipment. Under ZAKA rules, the state pays less than NIS 2 million, and only for proof of participation in work not done by the state institutions. “It’s only from the power of faith.
Nothing else can motivate a man to wake up at night, leave his family, see what we are exposed to, do this work, go home and be incapable for days of talking with his wife and laughing with his small children,” Zahav says.
The sector’s future: Work and study?
ZAKA is only part of what Zahav is doing. His attention is focused on two other goals. First of all, “We’re getting ready. The demographic picture is known, and in a few years, we’ll have to be the ones managing this business – the state. We have to educate our children accordingly, and send them for additional studies.
Yes, yes, core curriculum, mathematics, English, world history, physics. We need children who can also take the lead in security. The Central Bureau of Statistics says that 50 years from now, there will be 30% haredim, so we have to make people professionals.”
The second goal? “We want everyone to realize and know that the Second Temple was destroyed because they fought about values and laws.
It seemed to them a thousand times more important than anything involving life itself. So what happened in the end? Everything fell apart from inside. We lost our independence for thousands of years. We killed each other, and they killed us.
Today, we’re independent, everything’s prospering, everything’s growing, there’s so much Torah in Israel today. There hasn’t been as much Torah as there is now since the days of King Hezekiah. We don’t know how to appreciate what we have.”
Not long ago, it was reported that an 81 year-old woman had to switch seats on an airplane because a haredi man refused to sit next to her.
“Things are so crazy here that everyone thinks how to be more strictly observant, how to show that he’s stricter… I don’t believe in all this nonsense. I’m rational.
I don’t believe cult-like religious leaders and other foolishness. They taught us respect that the worst thing you can do is humiliate someone in public. It’s better to be thrown into the furnace than to humiliate your fellow man.
There are stories about Rabbi Auerbach, one of the greatest religious authorities, when he would travel on a bus and a woman sat next to him. He didn’t get up. He said that respecting a person, respecting your fellow human being, took precedence over everything. God will forgo the respect due him if the purpose is to honor your fellow human being. To injure a woman, and for what? That’s not cleanliness, holiness, duty, or a commandment.
It’s lack of respect for your fellow human being. Yes, there’s a non-ending argument among haredi Jews. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was asked once if it was permitted to extend a hand back to a woman who puts her hand out to you. He ruled that it was permissible. That’s the way of Judaism. Respect takes precedence over Torah; that’s no slogan or cliche.”
The Central Bureau of Statistics recently reported a breakthrough for the first time, a majority of haredi men, 56%, are working.
“There’s something strange here that happens only in Israel. People work in all Jewish communities. The most extreme Jews in the US, the Satmar Hasidic Jews, work. All of them.
The lay leader of the community, the most highly respected man, who sits next to the Satmar rabbinical leader on Sabbath eve, wears blue overalls and works in a printing firm during the week, and then wears all the Hasidic trimmings on the Sabbath.
Only here in Israel do haredim not work. Why? They say that after the Holocaust, after the world of Torah was destroyed, the rabbis were unwilling to listen to anything before the world of Torah was rebuilt.
Even if that were true then, however, it looks to me like an excuse later. In any case, the state of Israel owes a great debt to my dear friend, (former Minister of Finance and MK) Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid).
He broke the direct connection between the yeshiva and the labor market. Before, anyone who left the yeshiva was automatically drafted into the army, but not now. The haredim have realized this, and one day, they will praise him. The result is that more and more haredi men are going to work. I don’t understand how it can be otherwise.”
The fact is that it was different, and it is still different.
“Don’t believe it. The haredim have realized this. People don’t want to be miserably poor. All this idea of not working and not serving in the IDF resulted from the enormous argument about the state and Zionism.
Young people today were born into the reality of the state. They want to be involved and to participate in everything there is here. People want to learn, to make a good living.
All the institutes in the haredi community for studying professions are bursting with people. There is no university, college, or technological institute without a branch for haredim.”
Does that make them less haredi? Does it disrupt their continuity?
“It doesn’t harm anything. All the people whose words we study in the Talmud – they all worked, including all the most learned of them. Rabbi Yohanan was a shoemaker. One worked with charcoal, and another was a tinsmith. It’s written – work comes before everything else.
Jewish law says someone who steals NIS 100 has to pay back NIS 200. Someone who steals a bull has to pay back five times as much. Why? Because if you steal a bull, you have wasted its owner’s work, so you have to pay several times as much, and I’m not talking about rulings by Maimonides about the importance of art, labor, and the ban on making a living from Torah.
“No family wants to stand poor in the doorway waiting on line for charity or a soup kitchen. Everybody knows that a family that doesn’t have to worry about making a living has more domestic tranquility.
It’s true that everyone’s dream is to win the lottery and have a millions dollars in the bank, so they can sit and study Torah, but until that happens, we’ll work. There’s no connection between work and maintaining your way of life as a haredi. That’s a coward’s excuse.”