ICEJ supports the uniquely sacred work of ZAKA

By: Nativia Samuelsen

As the brutality of the Hamas terror attacks on October 7th began to emerge, Israeli emergency first-response teams quickly swung into action, selflessly putting their own lives on the line to save others. Some became the first line of defense, others offered medical care, while still others did search and rescue operations. It also fell to a very special group called ZAKA to collect the remains of the fallen and reverently bring them to an honorable burial.

An ICEJ delegation recently visited ZAKA’s logistical warehouse in Israel and we were instantly struck by the determination of the volunteers who daily deal with the tragic remnants of life, yet somehow manage to maintain an overwhelming sense of purpose and commitment to their holy mission.

Scattered around the expansive warehouse are a myriad of supplies, each item essential to the overall operation. The equipment for search and rescue ranges from cleaning materials, bio bags, protective gear and durable overalls (to prevent the smell of death from adhering to the clothes of the ZAKA workers), to chairs to be used during shiva – the traditional week-long Jewish mourning period observed after the burial of a loved one.

At the core of this operation is its team of hundreds of volunteers. These are all from the Orthodox Jewish community and therefore bring a deep understanding of the intricacies involved in traditional Jewish burial. This team of volunteers has been working tirelessly since the war, some of them not returning home to their families for days as they carry out this sacred mission.

In the week after the October 7th massacre, with more than twelve hundred bodies to bring to burial, a heart-felt cry for assistance reached us regarding the urgent need for equipment for ZAKA volunteers.

“No one was prepared for this attack,” ZAKA volunteers told our team. “Not the government, not the army, not Magen David Adom, none of us were prepared. We didn’t have sufficient equipment to handle the size of the catastrophe.”

Initially, their work began with the swift medical response and burial of the dead, then the volunteers embarked on the heroic task of returning to the devastated homes and vehicles to ensure that no trace of the deceased was left behind. This was more than a mere duty; it was a commitment to honor those who were so brutally taken.

ICEJ responded by providing their teams with protective vests and helmets, first aid and medical intervention equipment, and containment supplies for recovered remains.

Some traces led volunteers to Gaza. Others entered homes and searched cars that seem to remain frozen in time by the violence of that ‘Black Shabbat’ morning. Their task involves collecting blood and searching through ashes and destruction to find remains of bodies that were tortured and killed. In their determined mission, these ZAKA volunteers – champions of human dignity – ensured that every fragment, every drop of blood, was gathered for a respectful burial. Where bodies were burned in vehicles and it was impossible to properly clean the ashes from them, a decision was taken to bury the entire vehicle to assure a proper Jewish burial.

Speaking with the volunteers, Nicole Yoder, ICEJ’s Vice President for Aid & Aliyah, noted: “Though times are very difficult right now, God intends good for your nation. Israel has a hopeful future because God is faithful to His promises. Thank you for your service, it is a holy work, and we are honored to partner with you.”

“Our hearts are knit together in this mission. Thank you so very much for your support,” responded ZAKA spokesperson Motti Buckchin.

As we said our goodbyes, one ZAKA volunteer insisted, “We will leave none behind.”

The volunteer teams then began bustling in preparation for their next mission that day. Grabbing their kits and helmets, they darted out of the warehouse into their vans, not in search of applause or recognition, but fueled by a passion and deep commitment to the Jewish people and faith.

Please join us in prayer and support for these and other emergency first-response teams. They experienced immense trauma as often they were the first ones on the scene. Thus, they need our support for trauma treatment to help them process the harrowing scenes they witnessed. Please help us uphold these courageous volunteers as they provide an invaluable service to the people of Israel.