Israeli Volunteers in Haiti: Sabbath was 'Hellish' but Stirring

Volunteers from rescue group ZAKA extricated eight Haitian students who were trapped under the wreckage for 38 hours.

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Gil Ronen, | updated: 20:28

Volunteers from ZAKA, the religious emergency rescue group, said that they experienced a “hellish” Sabbath in Haiti but also experienced stirring moments during the Sabbath prayer.

The ZAKA delegation arrived in Haiti on Thursday after taking part in rescue operations, collection of bodies and identification at another disaster scene – the site of the helicopter crash in Mexico in which Jewish financier and philanthropist Moshe Saba was killed.

The ZAKA delegation decided to take charge of rescue operations at the ruins of the Haiti university building, an eight story structure that collapsed. They worked around the clock, assisted by members of the Jewish emergency rescue team of Mexico, which had accompanied them from their previous mission, and using equipment from the Mexican army. They succeeded in extricating eight Haitian students who were still alive and suffering from various degrees of injury, after spending 38 hours trapped under the wreckage. News of this success circulated among other rescue crews and added to their motivation, encouraging them not to give up on the possibility of finding survivors under the ruins.

Surrealistic prayer scene
The delegation members described their Sabbath experience as “hell,” with hundreds of bodies strewn all about with nobody there to bury them, and the stench of rotting flesh in the air. The group held the Sabbath prayers amidst the ruins, and later described “a surrealistic sight of Jews wrapped in tallitot [prayer shawls] atop fallen buildings.” Many of the local people believed that the Jews were praying for the well-being of the injured and to the memory of the dead, and gathered around them to watch the prayers. Dozens of the onlookers approached the Jewish delegation when the prayer was over and kissed their tallitot.

The volunteers reported a particularly moving moment when they reached the verse “He Who looks at the earth and it quakes,” which is taken from Psalms 104 and is a part of the prayer for the new month, which fell on the Sabbath. They said that many of them shook physically at this point, when they realized for the first time what terrible consequences the verse refers to.

The ZAKA team was unable to make contact with the Home Front Command delegation that arrived directly from Israel because the telephone system and other communications were down. They therefore nourished themselves with canned food they had brought with them from Mexico.

Members of the ZAKA delegation, who are no strangers to horrific disaster sites, nevertheless said that the sights they saw were “unbearable” and “such that the human mind cannot digest.”

According to the ZAKA website, one member of the ZAKA team said: "There are no words to describe the grief over human beings like me and you who cry out for help and rescue, yet no one can rescue them.” 

ZAKA rescuer at the university building

Treating a survivor

Ruins of the university building

Film Footage from the IDF Home Front Command Team in Haiti