An Israeli rescue team working near the site of an earthquake south of Mexico City on Sept. 20. Photo courtesy of Zaka

Israel to send search-and-rescue team to Mexico in wake of severe earthquake

Israel will send a search and rescue team to Mexico in the wake of a severe earthquake — the second to hit the North American nation in two weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the operation and said it would leave for Mexico as soon as possible, his office said Wednesday morning in a statement.

More than 200 people have been killed in the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck central Mexico on Tuesday afternoon, rocking the capital of Mexico City and causing hundreds of buildings to collapse.

In addition, a delegation of 50 Israeli soldiers is scheduled to leave for Mexico City on Wednesday afternoon to assist in relief efforts.

Volunteers from Israel’s Zaka search-and-rescue organization arrived in Mexico in the hours following the quake and are helping local rescue forces, the organization said in a statement. In addition, engineers have been sent to local synagogues to make sure that they can safely accommodate Rosh Hashanah services, according to Zaka.

On the same date in 1985, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake centered on Mexico City left 10,000 people dead and another 30,000 injured.

Tuesday’s quake comes two weeks after at least 96 people died in an 8.1 magnitude quake that struck off the southern Pacific coast of Mexico on Sept. 7. The Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas were hardest hit.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is also responding, supporting the search, rescue and emergency aid efforts of CADENA, its Mexican Jewish humanitarian partner. The response focuses on immediate rescue and relief including digging people out of the rubble, emergency psychology services and medical aid, according to JDC.

The JDC has also opened a mailbox for donations.

A Zaka volunteer has a hug for a Houston resident while helping with the cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Zaka

Israeli rescue group Zaka helping with hurricane cleanup in Houston

A team of volunteers from Israel’s Zaka search-and-rescue organization is in Houston to help with the cleanup in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The eight-member team will be joined by four more volunteers in the coming days, the organization said. The volunteers are assisting throughout the city with tasks ranging from clearing debris to delivering food.

The Zaka volunteers were briefed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing the recovery efforts, and met with the Orthodox Union, which is coordinating volunteers within the Jewish community in Houston.

On its first 24 hours in Houston off a 15-hour plane ride, the Zaka volunteers worked to clear out the United Orthodox Synagogue and assisted with the delivery of kosher food. On Monday, the team worked with Pastor Becky Keenan from the Gulf Meadows Church.

“It was particularly meaningful for Pastor Keenan that a team from the Holy Land has come to offer help,” Zaka Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav said in a statement.

The death toll related to Harvey has risen to at least 63 as of Monday. Zaka’s orders so far have related to humanitarian needs, though houses abandoned in the flooding are still being searched for bodies.

Zaka, which is recognized by the United Nations as an international humanitarian volunteer organization, is known for its expertise in search, rescue and recovery in natural disasters and terror attacks around the world.

The Israeli humanitarian aid agency IsraAid is also in Houston helping with the recovery effort.

Two Israelis shot dead in West Bank terror attack

An Israeli couple was shot dead while driving through the West Bank late on Thursday and Israeli forces were searching the area for the suspected Palestinian attackers, authorities said.

The couple's four children, aged between four-months and nine-years old, were also in the car but were unharmed when the gunman opened fire near the Jewish settlement of Itamar, the Magen David Adom ambulance service said.

“Palestinian terrorists opened fire on an Israeli family car, killing both parents. Luckily, their four kids, now orphans, were unharmed,” said Ofir Gendelman, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas praised the attack as a “heroic operation carried out by resistance fighters in the West Bank”.

Tensions have been high in the West Bank, land Israel captured in a 1967 Middle East war that Palestinians want for a future state, during a period coinciding with the onset of major Jewish and Muslim holidays.

Israeli police and Palestinians have also clashed regularly at a holy site in Jerusalem, raising international concern.

Body of missing Israeli hiker found in Nepal

The last unaccounted-for Israeli following the earthquake in Nepal was found dead in the remote Langtang area.

The body of Or Asraf, 22, was located Sunday morning, the Israeli ZAKA rescue and recovery organization announced. It likely will not be recovered until Monday, when a “complex extraction” will be attempted on a rocky mountainside, according to ZAKA.

Asraf had been traveling with members of his former Israeli army unit, but left for a hike on his own shortly before the quake hit on April 25. The death toll as of Sunday morning was over 7,000. Hundreds of Israelis were in the area at the time of the quake.

Prior to finding Asraf’s body, rescue workers found documents belonging to him. Asraf had been traveling for several months since his release from army service with the elite Egoz unit. He was injured during last summer’s Israeli military operation in Gaza.

His father, Patrick, and several army comrades had arrived in Kathmandu last week to join in the search. Patrick Asraf had vowed not to leave Nepal without finding his son.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has not been able to confirm the discovery of the body. It reportedly was identified by his army commander, who was taking part in the search.

Meanwhile, three people were pulled alive from the quake’s rubble, including a 101-year-old man. Aftershocks from the 7.8 magnitude temblor continue to roil the area.

Why there’s no Charlie Hebdo in Israel

In the hours that followed the deadly attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, cartoonists around the world paid tribute in the best way they knew how: through their own sketches. Solidarity cartoons showed pencils as World Trade Center towers; pencils as guns; pencils twisted into ribbons of honor; pencils cut in half, then sharpened into two.

In interviews with the Journal, a handful of Israeli and Palestinian cartoonists — some of whom knew the victims well — agreed that Charlie Hebdo’s four fallen illustrators were masters of their craft, unmatched in their devotion to freedom of expression.

“I grew up on their humor, their graphic approach. They are part of my own heritage,” said Belgian-Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka, former head of the Israel Cartoonists Guild and a legend in his own right.

One question, though, cartoonists in Israel found difficult to answer: Why, in the Holy Land, a hotbed for both dark humor and religious extremism, is there no bible for secular ideologues like France’s Charlie Hebdo? 

“I’m surprised that we don’t have a similar magazine,” Kichka said. “We don’t even have one. In France, they have more than two — there are others less famous than Charlie Hebdo. When you go to a kiosk in France to buy a newspaper, there’s a whole selection. I regret that we don’t have this platform in Israel.” 

Jews have a rich history of satire, Kichka said, but not necessarily visual satire, perhaps due to religious laws against idolatry, and it’s more often directed more at the self than at the other. In America, Jews have helped create publications like Mad Magazine and National Lampoon. However, Kichka said, “In Israel, we don’t have the same tradition” — and “it will not be easy” to invent it now, in the current environment.

Uri Fink, another famous Israeli cartoonist and a former student of Kichka, said the art form doesn’t enjoy the same respect in Israel.

“In France, it’s more mainstream,” Fink said. “It’s not avant-garde. These people are considered cultural treasurers, [Georges] Wolinski and [Stephane] ‘Charb’ [Charbonnier]; they’re household names over there.” In Israel, by contrast, “Cartoonists are never in too much danger because we are not that important,” he said.

Fink, a member of the international Cartooning for Peace collective, remembers one Israeli publication from the ’90s with a brazenness similar to Charlie Hebdo’s. It was called Penguins’ Perversions and was printed over a span of about five years by three recent high-school graduates. 

One of its founding members, Amitai Sandy, described one cartoon the publication ran after the head rabbi of Chabad-Lubavitch died in 1994:

“We did a comic of his crew sitting outside his hospital door. The doctor says, ‘Sorry, he’s dead.’ They say, ‘But we promised the people the messiah.’ So they have no choice but to put his body on a shawarma pole and feed him to the people.”

Despite the taboo nature of its cartoons, the only real opposition to Penguins’ Perversions, according to Sandy, was when then-Knesset member Efi Oshaya asked the police to arrest the cartoonists. Police refused.

“There was always less anger than we hoped for,” Sandy said. “I kind of realized in Israel people are not easily offended by humor. Maybe it’s because we’ve all told Holocaust jokes since we were little.”

Then, during the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, he said he and his colleagues found themselves almost at a loss for commentary.

“Imagine it: The religious guys from ZAKA [Orthodox rescue volunteers], because they have to put the whole body in the grave, would be collecting fingers from treetops,” Sandy said. “I think that as satirists we always fail to surpass the reality in this place.”

Penguin’s Perversion eventually fizzled. And as Sandy has moved further left on the political spectrum, he’s also become more hesitant to make fun of Israeli’s minority groups, as Charlie Hebdo was so famous for doing in France. “Islam is being attacked in Israel so much that, for us, it’s redundant,” he said. “The atrocities, the ridiculous things going on in our government, the things our own prime minister says, are more ridiculous than any satire we could come up with.”

Other Israeli cartoonists agreed that defending secular society from sacred cows is not their top priority. 

“These guys [at Charlie Hebdo] are atheists, and atheism is their main flag, their main battle. So they are mocking all religions,” said Amos Biderman, a cartoonist for leftist newspaper Haaretz who caused an uproar last summer with a drawing of the Israeli prime minister flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

Biderman said he respects Charlie Hebdo’s cause, but that for him personally, satire exists more for self-reflection. “I don’t deal with religions,” he said. “Most of my cartoons are domestic issues — politicians here in Israel, everyday life. Religions are not my business.”

Biderman disagreed with the scores of cartoonists and journalists internationally who claimed, in the wake of the Hebdo assassinations, that terrorists had only strengthened the free press.

“People who say that are speaking in a cliche,” Biderman said of the optimists. “It’s a cliche and not a reality. Newspapers in England are covering this story, but they don’t show the cartoons. They black them out. Where are the big heroes that got stronger?”

And the fear is selective, Biderman said. “Why do they censor the Muslim cartoons?” he asked. “Because they’re afraid. And they’re not afraid [of] Jews or Christians.”

In Israel, where two sets of extreme nationalists live side by side in a constant state of tension, the threat of a violent reaction to a controversial opinion is twofold.

During the 2014 Gaza war, Haaretz hired a bodyguard for one of its left-wing writers. And on the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a Haaretz cartoon comparing the Charlie Hebdo victims to Palestinian journalists killed in Gaza was met with death threats from online commenters.

“We must do what the terrorists did to them in France, but at Haaretz,” Chai Aloni wrote on Facebook. “Death to traitors,” Moshe Mehager wrote. “Haaretz is where the terrorists should have gone,” Riki Michael wrote. Right-wing politician Ronen Shoval called for a police investigation.

Palestinian cartoonists, for their part, have long complained of a triple censor: the Israeli government plus both Palestinian political camps. 

Within hours of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh, 34, had uploaded a tribute to his Facebook page. In the drawing, an Islamist terrorist fires on the Charlie Hebdo offices and, in the process, backfires on a mosque. 

His caption: “Whoever shot down cartoonists in France today have in fact shot Islam, not defended it.” 

In an interview a few days later at his office in Ramallah, Sabaaneh said many friends and fans asked him why he jumped to support a paper notorious for mocking the Muslim prophet.

“I told all my friends, all the Muslim cartoonists, that our role is to draw something about Islam, to show people what is Islam,” he said. “If you love Islam, you must fight the idea by idea. You must fight cartoon by cartoon. Frame by frame.”

Still, he said, he chooses not to insult anyone’s religion in his own work. “We have a priority: our freedom, our land,” he said. “Because French and European countries don’t have a political issue like us, they draw about religion. When the situation here is very quiet, there is no intifada, there is no violence against Palestinians, I think we’ll draw about some international issues. But for now, the political situation is our priority.”

After years of carefully avoiding calls to violence and offensive caricatures, Sabaaneh was jailed by Israel for four months in 2013 for alleged ties with Hamas. He’s still banned from visiting Jerusalem, and when he travels to other countries to exhibit his work, he must use the Jordanian airport.

Ironically, Sabaaneh also has gotten threats from Gaza after criticizing the Palestinian Islamist movement. And that critique was more on politics than religion. “I don’t think there are many Arab cartoonists or Muslim cartoonists who would draw anything against Islam,” he said.

If Israeli cartoonists mocked the prophet, Sabaaneh said, “It would also be a big problem. They are very careful. I look at all their cartoons, and I see it.”

Israeli artist Kichka confirmed: “We have never published any picture of Muhammad in Israeli cartoons. We have enemies, and our enemies have faces, and our enemies are sometimes our own leaders.”

Perhaps the most circulated cartoons in Israel are those drawn by Hamas cartoonists — including racist depictions of Jews and calls to arms. “When you draw what the Israelis want you to draw, they will translate and promote your cartoon,” Saabaneh said. “So I ask a lot of cartoonists related to Hamas, ‘Do not draw the blood.’ It gives us the image that we’re like animals, and we are not like animals. We are people who have rights. And we can draw our right to resist the occupation in a different way.”

Fink said he, too, is very careful in his depictions of both Muslims and Jews.

“Eventually, I have to draw a religious Jew, and I have to be very careful to draw him as a handsome, small-nosed guy,” he said. “And I accept it, because the drawing of the Jew in [the Nazi magazine Der Sturmer] is still in everybody’s mind. It‘s part of the international consciousness.”

Technically, Israel has a law banning all publications “liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others.” Israeli illustrator and animator Ido Amin wrote in a post-Charlie Hebdo op-ed that he became intimate with this law, a leftover from the British Mandate, when his “caricature in a well-known newspaper that criticized the cruel pre-Yom Kippur custom of kaparot … was brought up for discussion in the Knesset.” According to Amin, police brought him and his boss in for questioning, and he was cut from the paper’s staff soon after.

“So were the British right in their legislation?” he wrote. “When various groups live cheek by jowl in a small area, should expression be censored? Should consideration for our neighbors be more sacred than freedom of speech?”

A desire for peace and progress does seem to be the common factor holding many Israeli and Palestinian cartoonists back. Fink, a member of Cartooning for Peace, said: “You want to offend — you want to show people this ridiculous world. But sometimes if you go too far, it doesn’t work. If people are too offended, they don’t get the joke.”

Even the free-speech warriors at Charlie Hebdo sometimes appeared a tad more cautious when satirizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Fink remembered meeting the late Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier at a Cartooning for Peace conference in 2009, aimed largely at uniting Israelis and Palestinians through art.

“The relationship between Charlie Hebdo and Cartooning for Peace was interesting,” Fink said, “because they were anti-everything kind of guys. They would say, ‘Don’t offend anybody? Screw that!’ ”

Even so, Fink said of Charbonnier, “We were there together, and we had lunch. We talked about Israel. He wanted to do something about the settlements and be as objective as possible. So, he got the mayor of Ariel to take him to see the settlements. He was critical, but he went firsthand. He wanted to know for himself.”

Deadly bomb explosion in Jerusalem – ZAKA Emergency response [PHOTO SLIDESHOW]

ZAKA volunteer Motti Bukchin: “We were sitting in a meeting in the ZAKA headquarters when we heard a huge blast and the whole building shook. We ran into the street, carrying our emergency medical equipment and yellow vests, without even waiting for the news to come on our beepers. When we arrived at the site of the attack, we saw two women lying in huge pools of blood on the pavement. We began resuscitation immediately and were soon joined by other medical personnel from MDA and ZAKA. The two women were evacuated to hospital in serious to critical condition. “

ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi Zahav : “The sights, sounds and the smell took us back to the time of the terror attacks. We treated many other injured people behind the bus stop including a seriously injured, but conscious, yeshiva student. Because of the location of the attack, close to the headquarters of ZAKA and other emergency medical personnel, the injured were treated and evacuated very quickly. ZAKA volunteers are at the site clearing the blood and other body parts from the scene.”

Find more photos like this on

Hague Protest Mideast Conflict

Holland turned into a staging ground for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week, as demonstrators converged on The Hague to talk about Israel’s security barrier and Palestinian terrorism.

As the International Court of Justice held hearings on the West Bank security fence, thousands of Israel supporters from across Europe, Israel and the United States gathered in the streets outside The Hague’s Peace Palace.

On Monday, the same square used by about 3,000 pro-Israel demonstrators later became the site of a pro-Palestinian demonstration of slightly smaller size. For the most part, Dutch police managed to keep the twogroups apart, but the police’s efforts did not temper demonstrators’ vehemence toward each other — and for theircause.

“I came because of the suicide bombings,” said Derya Yalimcan, 30, a Turkish student who came with adelegation of students from Germany to support Israel’s cause. “You can’t do anything about it and you feel helpless. What else can we do besides come to this demonstration?”

To make their argument more poignant, the demonstrators brought with them an Israeli bus mangled in the Jan. 29 Jerusalem suicide bombing, in which 11 people were killed just around the corner from the Israeli prime minister’s official residence. Demonstrators said a hush fell over the crowd when the flatbed truck bearing the shattered bus rolled in.

In a disturbingly familiar image, 10 members of Zaka, the ultra-Orthodox rescue and recovery service that collects victims’ body parts after terrorist attacks in Israel, stood around the bus in their yellow work suits. Iris Boker, director of Zaka in Europe, said the bus had such a strong effect that it would probably be sent to other demonstrations, rather than be returned to Israel. She said there were several requests from U.S. groups to use the bus.

On Monday, unlike on Sunday — when Zaka volunteers in Jerusalem had to clean up after another suicide bombing in the Israeli capital killed eight — the Zaka volunteers at The Hague served a purely cosmetic purpose: They came to Europe to help convey a graphic understanding of the impact of terrorism in Israel.

Miri Avitan came to the demonstration at The Hague with a photo of her son, Assaf, who was killed at his 15th birthday party in a suicide bombing in December 2001.

“He was celebrating his birthday with his friends, and all his friends died,” Avitan said.

Bridgit Kessler’s daughter, Gila, was killed in a suicide bombing on June 19, 2002.

“That was the day I died,” said her mother, who has three other children. “I don’t want to have to wake up one day and they should tell me one of my kids has died.”

Much of the funding and logistical support for the pro-Israel rallies came from the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helped organize delegations of students to come to The Hague from Israel, France, England, Germany, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Hundreds also came from the United States.

“After the lessons of Durban and Johannesburg, one cannot leave the street to the Palestinian propaganda,” Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, said, referring to the virulently anti-Israel demonstrations at the U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, in the summer of 2001.

The bulk of the activity outside The Hague occurred Monday, with a series of marches and news conferences on both sides.

On Tuesday, a pro-Israel Dutch lobbying group, the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, held “alternative hearings” at The Hague’s former City Hall to provide a counterpoint to the official court hearing on the fence.

Flanked at the event by two E.U. Parliament members, about 20 victims and relatives of Israeli terrorism victims, including Druse and Arabs, spoke at a packed news conference about shattered bodies and shattered lives — and about peace.

Arnold Roth, 52, who with his wife created a foundation in memory of their daughter, Malka, who was killed in the suicide bombing at Jerusalem’s Sbarro restaurant in August 2001, said he was shocked to be asked by reporters whether the suffering of Palestinians is not the same as his suffering.

“When my daughter was murdered, her cell phone was returned to us,” said Roth, a member of a group called Israeli Families for Peace. “On it she wrote the words, ‘It is wrong to speak ill of others.’ But that isn’t what they [the parents of Palestinian terrorists] are teaching their children.”

At Palestinian counterdemonstrations at The Hague, protesters assembled bearing Palestinian flags, signs calling for the ”end of occupation” and pictures of Palestinians killed during the current intifada.

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who is close to Yasser Arafat, spoke at the Palestinian demonstration.

“People who are here are putting the occupation into the important international scene,” he said. “If you are against the wall, you are pro-life.”

The Palestinian demonstration was disbursed prematurely by Dutch police. An Israeli television reporter said he saw some Palestinian participants trying to physically attack nearby pro-Israel demonstrators.

According to Ronny Naftaniel, director of the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, a pro-Israel Dutch group, said Dutch police reported that several demonstrators were carrying signs comparing the Star of David to the swastika, which is illegal in Holland.

Shelley Klein, advocacy director at Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization of America, said the demonstrators outside the Peace Palace were not as bad as during the U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, in the summer of 2001, which turned into an occasion for unrestrained Israel-bashing.

The United States and Israel boycotted that event in protest. They did not attend hearing either. The United States said the International Court was not the right forum to decide a political issue, and Israel said it would not attend because it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction in the matter of the fence.

Testimony against the fence came from the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser al-Kidwa, and several other Palestinian lawyers who spoke uninterrupted for about three hours; South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, and representatives from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, among others.

Outside, some pro-Israel demonstrators said that while they did not support construction of Israel’s security barrier, they wanted to draw attention to the reason for it — terrorism.

“It is not an Israeli fence; it is a Hamas fence; it is an Islamic Jihad fence,” said Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International and representative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said, “The issue is not whether or not you support the route of the fence, the issue is the Court of Justice is not the proper place to determine the peace process.”

Wexler was joined by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). Both are members of the House International Relations Committee. Chabot said, “The people who ought to be on trial today are the people who are training children to aspire to be suicide bombers, not people who build fences to protect innocent lives.”

Alan Sermonetta, 37, came to The Hague with a group of about 100 Jews from Rome.

“I want the wall not to separate two states but just for security,” Sermonetta said.

A contingent of students from Yeshiva University in New York carried a large banner and danced the hora in two groups, men and women.

Derya Yalimcan, 30, a Turkish student from Germany, said he came to protest the hearings, because Israel is one of Turkey’s few allies in the Middle East.

“I came because of the suicide bombings,” he said. “You can’t do anything about it, and you feel helpless. What else can we do besides come to this demonstration?”

Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said he was disappointed that the pro-Israel demonstrators seemed unwilling to shout.

“Don’t be afraid; raise your voices,” he urged.

Alongside the Jewish supporters of Israel, Christians for Israel held their own pro-Israel march. More than 1,000 participants carried photographs of Israeli terrorism victims.

Thys Bovernkamp from Holland held up a card for someone who was killed in Sunday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

“I don’t know the name, only the number — 928,” he said.

JTA correspondent Rachel Levy at The Hague contributed to this report.

Going Through Hell For The Dead

Natan Koenig was blotting up blood from the floor of the cafeteria named for Frank Sinatra at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Koenig worked for two hours on that 95-degree afternoon on July 31, arriving soon after a Hamas-made bomb exploded under a table, killing nine people, including two Americans, wounding some 90 others and shattering the lunchroom.

Koenig handed sheets of blood-drenched absorbent paper to a co-worker, who placed them in a plastic bag. The bag would be buried in the grave of one of the victims. According to Jewish tradition, a person’s soul resides in his blood.

An ambitious caterer, Koenig, 25, is also a volunteer with ZAKA, the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Disaster Victims Identification team. Members are best-known for showing up in their black skullcaps and yellow reflector vests at the scene of terror bombings to gather up body parts and blood for burial. Of the 604 volunteers — all Jewish men — 570 are Orthodox religious. "Only those with faith can cope with this work," said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ZAKA’s peripatetic guiding spirit.

Most ZAKA members are also volunteer ambulance medics; upon arriving at terror scenes, the first thing they do is treat survivors. They also go on search parties for missing persons. Much, if not most, of their time is spent helping the living. But ZAKA’s signature Jewish mitzvah is in showing "respect for the dead" — going to hellish lengths so people can be buried in a condition recalling, as much as possible, that they were "created in God’s image."

Yitzhak Shalita, a computer programmer, saved lives as an ambulance volunteer, but he felt this was a matter-of-fact sort of mitzvah, "nothing heroic." He wanted a more challenging test of faith and dedication, so he joined ZAKA. Now he climbs ladders to scrape bits of human flesh off walls. "With every scrape of the plasterer’s knife, you feel a sense of satisfaction," he said.

Shalita was sitting with Koenig and Shlomo Bloch, an Orthodox religious student, one recent night in ZAKA’s low-ceilinged, underground bomb shelter in Jerusalem that is its combination equipment room and clubhouse. It’s where local volunteers go after a terror attack to evaluate their performance, swap stories, argue, laugh — there’s a lot of black humor in ZAKA — and vent about the stresses of their day or night.

Shalita is the soft-eyed rookie of the trio (each is age 25), having joined ZAKA only this year. The first terror bombing he worked was the night of March 9, when a terrorist blew himself up at Jerusalem’s Moment cafe, killing 11 people. He got there a few minutes after the explosion, before survivors could even begin to wail. "I went inside, and everything was quiet except for all the cellular phones ringing," he said. "The walls were covered with blood. There were broken tables, plates, salads all over the floor — total chaos. People were lying in a pile, one on top of the other, in a pool of blood."

He saw a woman seated on a chair at the bar, elbow on the counter, head resting in her palm. A man sat next to her with his hand on the bar as if holding a glass. Their eyes were open. "They were both dead, but they looked as if nothing was wrong with them. It was the force of the blast that killed them — internal injuries," Shalita said.

He worked five hours at Moment, well into the middle of the night. He doesn’t remember thinking or feeling anything, just mechanically doing one task after another.

"First, we took the corpses that were more or less whole, put them on stretchers, covered them with black plastic bags, and took them out to the tent that the police ID unit had set up," he said. "Then we did the same thing with the large body parts. Then we went back to get the smaller body parts and put them in bags. Then we scraped off the little pieces of flesh that had stuck to the walls and surfaces. The street outside was just covered with them. Then we blotted up the blood with absorbent paper and put that in a bag."

In the identification tent, police and ZAKA volunteers try their best to "piece together the puzzles" of the corpses, as Shalita put it. They take into account where the body parts were found, their appearance and any clothing that might be on them. The final, decisive "piecing together" is done with DNA tests by forensic pathologists at a Tel Aviv laboratory. Bags of blood, flesh and tiny body parts that cannot be identified are buried with the dead.

Needing to talk to a psychologist is not something that strictly Orthodox Israeli men are going to admit, and it was especially hard for the men of ZAKA. "We’re the machos of the community," noted Bloch. (As a rule, the strictly Orthodox, or haredim, do not serve in the Israeli Army, seeing it as a corrupter of morals. The "modern Orthodox" do serve, and both volunteer in ZAKA.) But after the wives of several volunteers began complaining that their husbands had grown emotionally flat, detached from their families and normal pursuits, including marital sex, Meshi-Zahav compelled volunteers to go to group therapy at least once a year. In their ZAKA kit is the business card of a psychologist available for counseling 24 hours a day.

"When I went to group therapy I didn’t open my mouth to talk, but I listened, and it helped," Bloch said. "I found that I wasn’t the only one who had these reactions." Asked what sort, he replied, "If I smell cooked meat a day or two after a terror bombing, I run out of the house."

There have been no suicides or nervous breakdowns among volunteers, Meshi-Zahav said, but recently, an elementary school teacher in ZAKA — members come from various professions — took his class on a field trip to a cemetery. "He’s off duty with ZAKA now," Meshi-Zahav noted.

Bloch compares ZAKA to an "elite army unit," and it does have many of the trappings. Volunteers know they are the chosen few; not many people have the fortitude to perform this deed, and consequently they are greatly admired in the haredi community. ZAKA is also respected by mainstream secular Israelis, who tend to resent haredim for the draft deferments and welfare checks many receive for studying full-time in religious schools.

"Most haredim don’t go to the army, and they see soldiers and civilians being killed, and they want to do something to help," said Bloch, noting another motivation for joining ZAKA. Haredim are virtually all hardliners about fighting the Palestinian intifada, and when they are literally picking up the pieces of terror victims, they can be in a dilemma over what attitude to take towards a suicide bomber’s remains. "You see his body in a thousand pieces, and you want to tear it into a million pieces, but you don’t. You’re not God, and even the terrorist was created in God’s image, so you treat him just like anybody else," Bloch said.

The remains of suicide terrorists are given to the Palestinian Authority for burial, Meshi-Zahav said.

In the cafeteria at Hebrew University, there had been no suicide bomber, just a bomb in a bag; this was why the incident was so "clean," pointed out a ZAKA volunteer. "When there’s a suicide bomber, the body parts fly in every direction," he noted. The scores of wounded people had been evacuated, the seven people killed had been taken in plastic bags to the forensic lab, the blood had been soaked up. Koenig’s work was finished.

Getting into his car, he noticed traces of drops of blood on his forearms. "I thought I’d washed it all off," he said. "What I want now more than anything else is to go home and take a good, long shower."