TORONTO — Zaka came to international attention 10 years ago when the world looked on in admiration as the vest-clad volunteers busied themselves among the debris of suicide attacks to tend to the wounded and gather human remains, no matter how tiny.
At the time, little was known about the organization, whose primary aim was to provide a proper burial in accordance with Halachah, or Jewish law, to victims of terrorism.
People witnessing their devotion to a sad but necessary task opened their hearts, and their wallets, to support the work. Since then, Zaka, the Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification, has continued to function, but with the drastic reduction in terrorist attacks, its members spend more time on Israeli highways tending to the victims of road accidents – about 10 per week.
“We save those who can be saved; we honour those who cannot be saved,” said David Rose, Zaka’s director of international communities liaison.
Rose is expected in Toronto next week to raise awareness about the organization and lay the groundwork for a permanent support group.
The visit will mark Rose’s second trip to Canada since May. On that occasion, he met with a number of local rabbis and other potential supporters.
“We’ll have small public meetings with businessmen,” he said of the upcoming visit.
Rose said Zaka continues to offer contributors a tax-deductible receipt but “it does not have much of a presence in Toronto and Canada. I’m here to teach what Zaka is about, what we do.”
“It’s a good story,” Rose continued. “It’s one of the few Israeli organizations recognized by the UN as an NGO, a humanitarian organization to assist in the case of disasters around the world and in Israel.”
With more than 1,500 volunteers, 34 ambulances and 162 motorcycles deployed around the country, Zaka offers its service free of charge.
Rose said in recent years Zaka has expanded its mandate and gone international. It has become expert in search and rescue and it sent teams to Japan following the earthquake and tsunami in March. Before that, it dispatched personnel to Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake and it was able to locate the remains of a Montreal Jewish businessman, Alexander Bitton, in the rubble of the Montana Hotel there.
So far this year, Zaka has raised about $15,000 in Canada.
“Ten years ago, when images came through TV of the yellow-jackets of Zaka, people sent [more] support,” he said.
Zaka operates on an annual budget of $5 million U.S., the majority of of which is raised in the Diaspora. Rose believes Toronto is a good location for a support group and he anticipates the community could raise as much as $150,000 annually.
Zaka has established “friends of Zaka” groups in Britain, France and the United States. There are similar organizations in Hong Kong and Singapore, he said.
Zaka trains volunteers in Israel and from its associated communities around the world in basic first aid and in the halachic disposition of bodies.
“I don’t want to alarm anyone, but we do have experience and we offer training” to assist terror victims or people caught up in natural disasters and even in searching for missing people, he said.
Rose proposes something similar for Canadian Jews, a program that will include training in CPR, search and rescue “and what to do in a trauma situation.”
“If God forbids something happens, they’ll know what to do and can respond.”
For more information, visit Zaka’s Canadian website at www.zakafoundation.org.