Ultra-Orthodox Jews volunteer to clean up after suicide bombing

Sunday, May 26, 2002

JERUSALEM -- At their headquarters in an underground bombshelter, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in pristine white shirts, black vests and black pants are on call for what they believe is God's mission.

With walkie-talkies dangling from their belts, they are ready to run to the scene of the next bombing or shooting where, donning yellow vests and hardhats, they will first help rescue the wounded and then collect body parts for burial. Jewish law requires burial of the entire corpse within 24 hours.

The commander in chief and founder of the volunteer group, ZAKA, is Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a thin man with silver-streaked sidelocks and piercing eyes. Meshi-Zahav's face is part of the scenery at any attack in Jerusalem.

The group's "job" has become even more difficult since September 2000 when Palestinians launched an uprising to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian militias carried out scores of bombings and shootings.

"It effects everything: your outlook on life, the way you behave," said Meshi-Zahav, speaking at his cramped headquarters, the underground bombshelter once used by the Jerusalem municipality to store fireworks.

In the most recent attack, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a busy pedestrian mall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion on Wednesday, killing two Israelis and wounding dozens.

ZAKA volunteers threw on the hardhats and vests and got to work.

They scraped up pieces of flesh stuck to the brick sidewalk and the tables and chairs of the outdoor cafes, putting them in bags to be buried in a common grave.

Diligently, they separated the larger body parts -- hands, fingers, feet and toes -- into separate plastic bags, filling out forms explaining where the pieces were found, information meant to help pathologists carry out DNA tests.

Climbing trees

At other bombing scenes, they have climbed trees and removed branches to get to the smallest bits of flesh. They have used cranes to remove body parts from facades and rooftops.

ZAKA's 604 volunteers are divided into six districts throughout Israel.

The bearded men are always on call, including on the Jewish Sabbath, when other ultra-Orthodox Jews don't work. The volunteers are permitted by Jewish law to break the Sabbath rules because saving lives is the supreme value.

They are often the first at the scene, even before the ambulances.

The Palestinian uprising has put a strain on resources. The supply of rubber gloves at times runs seriously low. After the Aug. 9 bombing at a Jerusalem pizza parlor, volunteers had to dip into their pockets to buy sponges to mop up pools of blood from the tile floor.

A rabbi instructed them to bury the three pails of blood.

Volunteers attribute their dedication and emotional strength to their religion. Periodically they hold group sessions with a psychologist.

Most can talk about their experiences as easily as a banker would talk about a day at work.

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