The network was set up in the early 1990s. The Jerusalem ZAKA organization was founded in the 1990s by Yehuda Meshi Zahav and Rabbi Moshe Aizenbach as a non-profit organization in addition to its police status. This arrangement succeeded the ZAKA organization founded by Rabbi Elazar Gelbstein in 1989.
Members of ZAKA, most of whom are Orthodox Jews, assist ambulance crews, aid in the identification of the victims of terrorism, road accidents and other disasters, and where necessary gather body parts and spilled blood for proper burial. They also provide first aid and rescue services, and help with the search for missing persons. ZAKA was involved in helping forensic teams in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, where they were nicknamed "the team that sleeps with the dead" because of their willingness to work around the clock.
The founders and members of ZAKA prefer to call the organization and their work Chesed shel Emet (חסד של אמת - "true kindness"), because they are dedicated to arranging the bodies of slain Jews to be buried according to Halakha, Jewish law. After acts of terrorism, ZAKA volunteers also collect the bodies and body parts of non-Jews, including suicide bombers, for return to their families. The phrase Chesed shel Emet refers to doing "kindness" for the benefit of the deceased, which is considered to be "true kindness", because no reward is expected.
ZAKA activity expanded rapidly during the al-Aqsa Intifada (from September 2000), when frequent terrorist suicide bombings created many scenes of disaster, with the remains and body parts of many victims strewn around bombing sites.
The devotion of the members of ZAKA and the professional manner in which they handled difficult and tragic scenes, such as the treatment of the bodies of victims killed in suicide bombings, led to strong public respect and admiration. The great contribution of ZAKA to Israeli society was soon widely recognized.
This recognition enabled ZAKA to recruit more volunteers, and with growing monetary donations, purchase advanced equipment, such as first aid kits, ambulances, MIRS and motorcycles (for rapid response).
The increase in reputation, donations and manpower enabled ZAKA to participate in additional voluntary activities beyond disaster victim identification and supplying first aid. Such other activities include helping senior citizens and education initiatives to prevent road accidents.
One of the founders of ZAKA, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, was given the honor of lighting an honorary beacon on Israel's 55th Independence Day official ceremonies on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the revered burial spot of modern Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl.
In 2004, a group of ZAKA volunteers flew to The Hague, Netherlands, with the wreckage of a bus destroyed on January 29, 2004 in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. The wreckage, along with pictures of 950 victims of Palestinian terrorism, was taken to Washington DC to urge the United States to act against Palestinian terrorism.
In late 2004 and early 2005, members of ZAKA provided assistance in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Forensic teams reportedly dubbed the group "the team that sleeps with the dead" because they toiled nearly 24 hours a day at Buddhist pagodas in Thailand that had been transformed into morgues to identify those who died in the tsunami. The experience of ZAKA members, who reportedly see 38 bodies a week on average in Israel, helped the Israeli forensic team to identify corpses faster than many of the 20 or so other forensic teams that operated in Thailand in the aftermath of the disaster, which placed them in high demand with grieving families.
In February 2007, ZAKA sent a 10-person rescue team, consisting primarily of rescue divers, to Paris to search for a missing Israeli Defense official. The mission is being funded by the Defense Ministry at an expected cost of $80,000.