Sure, supermodel Bar Refaeli captures her share of headlines here. But you know who's a real celebrity in this country?
I'll tell you.
I was sitting down this afternoon in a little cafe in the mall, revving up my voice recorder, buffing up my pen & notepad, or whatever I do before an interview… when I noticed a woman standing outside the cafe, staring intently.
After a second, she started waving - at the guy I had come to interview. She waved timidly at first, shyly, and then a little more crazily when she saw that he'd spotted her there. "Todah," she mouthed at him. "Todah." Thanks.
"He's like a rock star here," said the translator.
I nodded, numb, amazed.
Who was this instantly-recognizable mega-star that I had come to interview?
It was this guy:
What’s that you say?
Exactly! Yeah, this guy. (The one in the vest. No idea who the guy in the white kippah could be.)
Yup, him. Desmond Tutu’s buddy.
This rock star is none other than Yehuda Meshi-Zahav and I have to admit that, like that lady in the mall today, I’ve become a huge, huge fan.
How did he attain his celebrity status, here in Israel and around the world?
He’s the head of ZAKA, the only Jewish search-and-rescue organization in the world. When there is a terror incident, ZAKA are the ones who pull out the bodies – the victims along with the terrorist himself, because every human body contains kedusha, the spark of holiness.
As he explained to me, the laws on how to treat a dead body come from a section of the Torah that tells us how to deal with a criminal who has been hanged. Don’t leave the body hanging overnight, says the Torah. Take him down and bury him right away.
With classic Jewish reasoning, it is instantly clear that if this is how we treat a criminal who deserves death, kal v’chomer, we owe tremendous honour to the holy victims of terror and disasters of all kinds.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t conflicts when it comes to salvaging the body of a terrorist. Last month, ZAKA actually reached a decision that their body bags will not be used for terrorist murderers. Instead, there are special-issue black bags, so that in death, “the father and son do not have to lie together with the terrorist who murdered them.”
Yes, the stories are often horrifying. There are so many details I, you, and the rest of us don’t want to know. Yet families are grateful, he told me. They never even had to ask for help – if something terrible happens, in Israel or around the world, ZAKA will be there to help.
Meshi-Zahav explained to me today, the organization’s initials officially stand for זיהוי קרבנות אסון /zihui korbanot ason = “identifying victims of disaster.”
But in the years he’s been with ZAKA (and believe me, his path to where he stands today was a long and twisty one indeed), he’s discovered that it can also mean זה קירוב רחוקים / zeh kiruv achim = “this draws brothers near,” the highest level of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem’s name through holy work.
What did I tell you?
This guy is a rock star. Here he is hanging off a 14-storey building in Jerusalem.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav rushes into the exact situations the rest of us run away from. And so does every one of ZAKA’s hundreds of volunteers, dedicating countless hours around the world every single week.
And don’t worry, even if you’re here in Israel, you, too, can donate to ZAKA.