Meshi Zahav among trophies
Meshi Zahav among trophiesZAKA

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, founder and chairman of ZAKA, is a fitting winner of the 2021 Israel Prize in the category of “Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State,” announced this week by Israel’s Education Minister, Yoav Galant.

For three decades now Meshi-Zahav has led Zaka, one of Israel’s leading emergency response operations, both at home and worldwide. In addition to providing emergency response services and assisting in search and rescue operations, Zaka also helps in the grim task of finding and identifying body parts following terror attacks, air crashes and other disasters.

I met Meshi Zahav a number of years ago and will never forget the following story he told:

Following the devastating earthquake that struck the island of Haiti in 2010, an eight story university building collapsed in Port-au-Prince and trapped eight students underneath the rubble. The students’ cries could be heard from outside and the Haitian military did everything they could to locate the young Haitians.

Soon after the rescue operation began, members of ZAKA, a leading Israeli rescue and recovery NGO, were dispatched to the scene and took control. The six-man Israeli delegation had arrived in Haiti aboard a Mexican air force Hercules, immediately after completing their work in the recovery and identification efforts following a helicopter crash in Mexico City, which had occurred days before the earthquake in Haiti.

Credit: Zaka

They quickly made their way to the university building and after 38 hours of working around the clock with the Mexican military delegation and other Jewish volunteers from Mexico, they succeeded in rescuing the students alive from the rubble. The collapse took place on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and amid the wreckage and chaos, the ZAKA delegation took time out to recite Shabbat prayers. This led to the strange sight of Jewish Orthodox men wrapped in prayer shawls standing amongst the destroyed structures.

At that point large crowds of Haitians gathered at the site and stared in shock at the men as they prayed facing Jerusalem. They told the Israelis that they looked like angels who had come to save their fellow countrymen. When the prayers ended, the local people crowded around the ZAKA delegation and kissed their prayer shawls.

The prize selection committee said in a statement that Meshi-Zahav has made an “outstanding” contribution to advancing assistance at disaster events and creating unity in Israeli society while having “a sense of purpose and a true belief in the need to build bridges and hold dialogue.”

David Kramer is the founder of NU,, a social venture connecting people worldwide to the non-profit sector in Israel and he is the author of State Of The Heart,, a new book that explores the humanitarian and benevolent side of Israel (Urim Publications 2020.) He lectures extensively on Israel and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children.