We live such intense lives, one news story follows another, and we are not always able to get to the bottom of the matter and delve into the real issues behind the headlines. For example, in the last few weeks, we have heard much about the hurricanes that hit the shores of the United States. I do not know how many people exactly understand the implications of this headline, because, for many of us, particularly those of us living in Israel and Europe, the word hurricane sounds like something you only experience when you see a movie. Maybe you imagine some giant fan, someone throwing buckets of water for hours on end, without stopping and with tremendous power.
Among those hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the United States were the Jewish communities of Houston and Florida - large, strong communities that have supported Israel for many years. When reports reached Israel about the damage inflicted on community institutions, we knew, we just knew, without any doubt or question, that we at ZAKA would send over a delegation of volunteers from Israel to assist in the rescue and recovery mission.
There may be those who are unaware that ZAKA, as a UN-recognized international humanitarian volunteer organization, is also active in search, rescue and recovery missions around the world – not only in Israel, and not only with the Jewish community. ZAKA has hundreds of highly-trained and well-equipped volunteers around the world, as well as specialist units that have the expertise and experience in coping with complex situations in mass casualty incidents, to help those who need it – Jews and non-Jews alike.
That’s how we found ourselves, a small group of volunteers, taking a 20-hour flight from Israel to head towards the storms, while most people were (rightly) fleeing the area.
When we finally got to Houston, we found a city that resembled a war zone. The houses were flooded, community buildings and institutions completely destroyed. The smell of mold and mildew filled the air inside the synagogue and the Holy Ark was almost flooded. We quickly took action, cleared the debris from the synagogue, removed the Torah scrolls, and removed more debris and rubble from the Jewish community's home for the elderly. All this, in order to help them return to routine as quickly as possible.
The reactions we received from people were very moving. After all, it is not easy to understand that the whole country is collapsing and a synagogue and Torah scrolls are not necessarily a top priority.
And suddenly a rescue mission arrives from Israel and volunteers roll up their sleeves and start working, offering a helping hand when and where it is most needed.
After a few days in Houston, we continued on to Florida where the storm had hit the hardest. We drove down from Atlanta, passing ghost towns on the way and marveling at the power of mother nature. Among other things, we were able to rescue people from their homes, transfer the sick and wounded to hospitals, distributed fuel, generators and food for Christians, Muslims and Jews. This experience brought everything into proportion, once again underscoring that, despite evolving technology and the influence of the world's greatest superpower, we are mere humans, powerless in the path of the forces of nature.
This mission encapsulates who we are in ZAKA, what is the driving force and motivation that inspires us. The desire to offer help and assistance, wherever we can, to those who live and to honor those who died.
As Jews, this is our duty, this is our obligation. For we are all brothers if not in blood, then in spirit!
Mati Goldstein is the chief officer of the ZAKA International Rescue Unit.