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Collecting the dead

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Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2005 9:07 pm | Updated: 8:18 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Bombs send volunteers into gruesome missions, and AMY TEIBEL speaks to the rescue workers who rush to the scene.

A bomb goes off. Instantly, dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men leave their jobs, families and synagogues to race on mopeds to the scene.

Their mission: rescue the living and carry out the gruesome task of scraping body parts from pavements, buildings and trees.

Jewish law requires complete burial. For the volunteers of Israel's ZAKA -- an acronym for the Hebrew "Identification of Disaster Victims" -- gathering up all collectable body parts is the height of altruism, a supreme Jewish value, because the dead cannot pay them back.

The volunteers, often bearded and wearing sidelocks in the custom of their communities, meticulously identify bodies and body parts, collecting limbs, pieces of flesh and blood -- at times clambering onto firetruck cranes to get hard-to-reach fragments.

"We get things off trees, scrape off buses," says Chaim Weingarten, head of ZAKA's rapid-response moped unit. "It flies hundreds of yards. It flies onto rooftops. We try not to leave not a single shred of flesh anywhere."

They try to match the fragments to the victims. A missing baby was identified at one bombing by a piece of flesh seared to a pacifier, Weingarten said. Smaller pieces without identifying marks, like blood and pieces of stomach, are buried in a common grave, sometimes together with the bomber.

"We at ZAKA don't distinguish between terrorist and Jew, or Arab, or Christian," Weingarten explains. "We take care of them all. It is written in the Book of Genesis that man is created in God's image. It doesn't say a Jew is created in God's image."

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A GRIM TASK

ZAKA got its unofficial start in 1989, when a loosely knit group of volunteers streamed to a ravine after a Palestinian militant sent an Israeli bus plunging off the road, killing 16. It became a formal organization in 1995 after a volunteer shook up a suicide bombing investigation by stashing a leg in his car trunk to bring it to burial -- and forgetting it.

"At this point, we decided this thing had to be put in order," Weingarten said. The ultra-Orthodox community, which has an informal network of community activists, institutionalized ZAKA, which now has 1,400 volunteers nationwide, he said.

What motivates ZAKA is "our desire to bring people to burial, to know that there is a special value for each person, that each dead person has his grave," he said. "That is what guides us."

The ZAKA volunteers are treated like rockstars in their community. Hordes of religious children wear ZAKA's day-glo yellow vests with reflective tape and blue pockets during the dress up holiday of Purim.

Weingarten joined the group after an uncle was killed in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank. "I saw the ZAKA people there working, and cleaning, and I was very moved. ... And I said, in honor of my uncle's soul, I must join this organization. Before that, I couldn't even look at someone who had fallen down."

ZAKA volunteers respond not only to terror attacks, but to traffic accidents and other emergencies. Weingarten, who checks his pager, walkie-talkie, and computer monitor every couple of minutes, estimates the group handles 40 cases of unnatural deaths a week, and responds to hundreds of rescue calls a day.

The ultra-Orthodox volunteers even work on the Jewish Sabbath because saving lives and bringing the dead to burial supersede the edict to rest. A unit of Bedouin Arabs also pitches in on the Sabbath.

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LEAVING THE HOMELAND

ZAKA has become such an integral part of the Israeli rescue services that volunteers were dispatched to the Egyptian resort of Taba last year after suicide bombers attacked a hotel popular with Israelis.

They also traveled to Thailand a few months later to identify Israelis and other Jews who died in the tsunami that devastated tourist sites there.

There, they exchanged the black suits and hats they customarily wear for white coveralls and face masks. Among the thousands of bodies piled up at the identification station, ZAKA managed to identify all six Israelis and five other Jews it had set out to find.

"We were called 'the team that slept with the dead,'" Weingarten said. "Others came, worked from 9 to 4. What was that about? We were looking for our Jews! We stayed until 12, 1, until we couldn't take it any longer, and at 6 we'd be back."

They marked the Jewish Sabbath with a traditional meal at sundown.

"The tablecloth was a body bag. Around the table were victims' families and members of the Israeli team, and the subject of conversation was corpses," Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the group's leader, said then.

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HOLDING IT IN

Stifling emotions at the scene is key.

"When I look at photos of myself in Thailand, I don't believe it was me," Weingarten said. "I see myself with the corpses, and the maggots. It's absolutely horrendous. I wouldn't have thought I would have been able to do it."

Volunteers interested in working for ZAKA usually start by washing bodies in funeral homes, to inure them to the dead. They also go through a 40-hour training course in first aid, criminal identification procedures, and relevant Jewish law. Refresher courses are held two to three times a year.

Still, it's not always easy to keep calm. He recalls being alerted to a West Bank village where a bomb went off prematurely in a militant's hands.

"I looked at him (the bomber's mangled body), and started to shriek, 'Good God, you planned to kill kids on their way to school!' ... The (ambulance) driver said, 'Chaim, what happened to you?' But it felt good, I blew up, and I felt I let everything out."

After each terror attack, or especially horrific traffic accident or death, volunteers come back to ZAKA's office to sit and talk. Sometimes a psychologist is called in, but not often.

"The ultra-Orthodox community doesn't visit psychologists much," Weingarten explained. "They don't believe in it. They believe in God, in their rabbis, in the Wall, you go to cry there," he said, referring to the biblical Temple-era wall in Jerusalem known as the "Wailing Wall."

Sometimes the emotional toll becomes too great, and volunteers take time off.

"But they always come back," he says. "Someone who has done this always wants to come back."

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