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ZAKA in New Orleans: Recovering Victims and Torah Scrolls

Members of the US branch of the ZAKA Rescue & Recovery Organization are in New Orleans aiding in the recovery and identification of flood victims, as well as rescuing water-logged Torah scrolls.
By Nissan Ratzlav-Katz
First Publish: 9/16/2005, 12:12 PM / Last Update: 9/16/2005, 1:01 PM

The team, lead by Mr. Isaac Leider, ZAKA's coordinator in New York City, has been escorted by Louisiana National Guards during their stay. The ZAKA efforts have been coordinated with the Chief of Louisiana Police, Colonel Henry Witthorn, and they are operating under his command.

In a unique operation, ZAKA and Louisiana National Guard volunteers, alongside a team assigned by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), waded through waist-deep toxic floodwaters Tuesday to retrieve six Torah scrolls from Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans. A few of the Torah scrolls are believed to be more than 250 years old, but only two are salvageable, according to ZAKA's Leider. Agudath Israel of America partially funded the ZAKA Torah-rescue mission.

"The scrolls at all the other synagogues [in New Orleans] were taken out," Mr. Leider said.

Another task that ZAKA undertook in the past weeks is ensuring that the bodies of Jews killed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are treated in accordance with Jewish religious law.

ZAKA, the Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification, is an all-volunteer organization established in Israel by the Orthodox Jewish community for protecting the dignity of victims of accidents, terrorism or other forms of sudden death. The religiously motivated organization quickly grew, however, into an internationally recognized first-response service, mobile victim-identification unit and search-and-rescue team. The organization has shared its accumulated knowledge, expertise, and professionalism with rescue teams and governments throughout the world, including subsequent to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, the terrorist bombing of a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, the recovery of the remains of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle, and following the tsunami in Southeast Asia.