Against the current background of tensions between extremist sections of the haredi world and the wider community, ZAKA, the haredi life-saving, rescue and recovery volunteer organization, was in the news recently for entirely positive reasons. Breaking down both barriers and stereotypes, these haredi volunteers are involved in numerous groundbreaking initiatives, all of which benefit the general population.

In December 2011, eight haredi ZAKA volunteers took a two-week specialist diving, rescue and recovery training course for the ZAKA Diving Unit. The unit was formed some six years ago and until now it comprises 248 mainly professional – and secular - male and female divers, including former Israeli Navy commandos, who already have their diving certificates. They all volunteer their time to assist in search and rescue operations with the ZAKA Diving Unit. In recent years, the unit has played a key role in high profile cases such as the search for four-year-old murder victim Rose Pizem, whose body was eventually found in the Yarkon River. Now that the first haredi ZAKA volunteers have completed the specialist training course, they will be able to join their fellow volunteer divers in future missions.

A second, equally groundbreaking recent initiative involving ZAKA was a half-day course for Israeli Arab women on home safety, accident prevention and emergency care. Led by a ZAKA medical professional and an Arabic speaking paramedic, this course marked the first time that ZAKA and the haredi community have been involved with a program geared specifically towards women in the Israeli Arab sector. Arising from lessons learned by volunteers arriving at homes in Israel’s minority community, the course addressed both accident prevention and post-accident care during the “four golden minutes”, the critical time that can make the difference between life and death. Forty five women attended the course, which was held in Kfar Kassem. One of the participants, who had recently found herself in a frightening and helpless position after her child was injured at home, said: “The skills that we have gained on the course are priceless.”

The course is part of the Kulanana Initiative which consists of 20 Israeli nonprofit organizations (NGOs) of diverse backgrounds, including ZAKA. If the pilot course is a success, the program will be extended to 12 other Arab towns across Israel. ZAKA is dedicated to promoting diversity and fairness in Israeli society, and has an active Minorities Unit based mostly in the Negev, Galilee and the triangle area of Israeli Arab towns offering a quick response to emergencies in these areas. There are currently over 100 ZAKA volunteers from the Arab, Bedouin and Druze sectors in Israel.

ZAKA’s third recent initiative was the establishment in January of an inter-religious forum of leaders from the various denominations and religions in the north of Israel, under the slogan “ZAKA: Bridging Worlds”. Religious leaders, including rabbis, qadis, sheikhs, priests and imams, signed a declaration of cooperation, issuing a joint call to members of their respective communities to join ZAKA as volunteers, receive training in life-saving, rescue and recovery techniques and ensure the respect of both the living and the dead in accordance with their religious traditions.

Participating in the ceremony were Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, and many other prominent rabbis. Representatives of Israel’s religious communities included, among others, Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif, Imam and Chairman of the Muslim community in Israel, Sheikh Mohammed Kiwan, Imam of Al-Jazaar in Acre, Sheikh Samir Assi, Bedouin Imam Jamal, Circassian Imam Yusef Ashmuz, Father Michel Taama from the Catholic community, Qadi Fares Salach of Acre, as well as leaders from the Circassian, Greek Orthodox and Christian communities in the north.

The Bridging Worlds Foundation Scroll, which was signed during the ceremony, includes the following words, which in Israel today are more pertinent than ever: “We encourage and welcome the initiative of the ZAKA organization to include as many people as possible in the circle of those engaged in volunteering, in the belief that, with more and more volunteers working together, barriers come down, our outlook on life changes, and we become more united, focused and better people, bringing closer the prospect of peace… We hereby declare our desire to be part of this holy work to assist any person who is in need of help, regardless of religion, race or creed.”

Founded in 1995 by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ZAKA is Israel’s dominant non-governmental lifesaving, rescue and recovery organization, with over 1500 volunteers deployed around the country. On call day and night, seven days a week, volunteers are ready to respond to any terror attack, disaster or accident immediately, professionally and with the necessary equipment. The diving unit is just one of ZAKA’s many specialist units. Each one ensures that ZAKA volunteers are equipped to reach any emergency incident as quickly as possible, thereby saving precious time and lives. The UNrecognized ZAKA International Rescue Unit assists at natural disasters, mass casualty incidents and terror attacks throughout the world, most recently in Japan, Haiti and Mumbai.

For more information about the organization and volunteering, please contact David Rose at or 054 780 9175.


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Marian Lebor

Marian Lebor came to live in Israel from London in 1994 with her husband and their three children. She is a freelance writer, editor and film-maker. For many years she wrote a regular column about eve...

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