These are their names: Jesse Vogel, Micha Leder, Jon Shetrit, and Isaac Stern. They reside in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway and in the aftermath of October 7, they were restless and like the rest of us, disturbed and bothered by what happened in Israel.
This small group is part of the larger local Shomrim group specializing in search and rescue operations for the Rockaway Nassau Safety Patrol (RNSP).
Like all of us, they heard about the 1,400 people who were ruthlessly murdered, and the more than 200 who were kidnapped and are still being held by Hamas in Gaza.
But these four young men were not satisfied with standing on the sidelines while their brothers and sisters were suffering and enduring indescribable hardships.
Less than two weeks after the Simchat Torah assault on innocent Israelis, the team flew off to Israel to team up with the ZAKA Search and Rescue organization and shortly thereafter found themselves on the ground in southern Israel, helping communities in any way they could, under the direction of ZAKA’s supervisory personnel.
“We were there to do whatever we could do to help support the effort,” said team member, Jesse Vogel. Our conversation earlier this week was a delicate and difficult subject to approach.
My immediate impression of these young men being motivated by kindness and a proclivity to reach out to those in need was confirmed by our half-hour conversation.
These selfless young men and other members of their New York-based team specialize in areas that do not usually attract the average person. They perform all search and rescue operations. Last week, when I wanted to set up the conversation, one of the team members told me that they were busy searching for two missing persons, a situation that was soon successfully resolved.
For his part, member Jon Shetrit, a long-time friend of our family, focuses on chesed shel emes projects as well as “taharahs” to properly prepare Jews who have passed away for proper burial.
In our conversation, which can also be heard on the Daily Thread on a number of social media platforms, you can hear us trying to maneuver the conversation in the direction of hearing more specific details about what they had to deal with during their time in Israel.
When I asked Isaac Stern about how he and his friends feel about sharing these details with the public, he said at the end of our talk that despite sharing some of the details of what they experienced, “What I am telling you is not even 1% of what we saw with our own eyes and had to physically handle.”
It was at that point that I asked the men how they handle hearing people in the news media expressing doubt that these brutal murders actually took place and claiming that Israel is exaggerating the nature of the gruesome deaths to evoke sympathy from an unsympathetic world, at least when it comes to Jews.
“No one can tell us that; it’s ridiculous. We were there; we saw it; we smelled death. It’s not even worth entertaining these absurd ideas.”
The ZAKA objective is to bury the victims without any parts of their bodies missing. While it means body parts, the meaning is deeper than that, the men added. It is difficult to describe whether orally or in writing the essence of that meaning.
One of their primary tasks was working through the many cars that were sometimes filled with multiple victims. People were desperate to flee, one of the men explained, and the quickest way out was by car.
But then the terrorists either shot up the cars with automatic weapons or in some cases threw hand grenades into the cars, exploding them.
“We were there to help and just as importantly to communicate to so many of us here in the United States that this was not something that ‘just happened’ to someone far away,” said team member Micha Leder.
He added that they were there to demonstrate to ZAKA members that they were not doing this alone. In fact, Micha said that when they showed up for work each day, they would hear the Israeli ZAKA members saying to one another, “The American are here.” And they said it with a sense that indeed, Israel was not in this alone.
When I heard about this mission a few weeks ago, I reached out to these remarkable men, but I was told at the time that it was too early for them to talk about it and they needed private time to process their feelings.
These men, like Israel itself, are about resiliency and courage. We don’t shy away as these men so aptly demonstrated by their courageous actions, and as Jews, we are all in this together. And as we have seen in these pages over the last few weeks, there is a role on some level for everyone.
Thank you, Jesse, Jon, Micha, and Isaac, for doing us proud and for a job well done.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.