On Journalistic Response to Disaster

On Monday night, a truck collided with a pedestrian bridge on the edge of Bnei Brak, causing the bridge to collapse on top of the truck and its driver, who was trapped underneath. Large numbers of emergency responders rushed to the scene, including units from ZAKA, Hatzalah, Magen Dovid Adom and police. Tragically, intensive efforts to save the driver, Eli Chai Tederi, 58, from Holon, who had been crushed under the fallen structure, were to no avail.

Traffic in both directions on Highway 4 were blocked as engineering crews labored to clear the wreckage, a process that took all night to complete. During that time, thousands of motorists found themselves stuck in a huge traffic jam that had begun in the middle of the evening rush hour.

The three-lane highway was a disaster area, and impassable; there were no exits near the scene, and drivers had no choice but to wait until police eventually improvised a way around it.

Meanwhile, the near-90-degree heat added to the frustration and discomfort. People were getting thirsty and hungry.

But not for long. Within minutes of the crash, the stranded drivers discovered they had friends who had come to help.

It was a group called Yedidim (Friends), one of the myriad chessed organizations in the chareidi community in Bnei Brak and around the country. Like many others, Yedidim has a specialty: It dedicates itself to helping drivers who are stuck on the roads.

Yisrael Almasi, chairman of the group’s central district organization, said that the group “distributed thousands of gallons of water, which we began organizing when we realized the extent of the emergency. Our volunteers grabbed bicycles and went out to the highway to provide refreshments for the drivers.”

“We also brought drinks for the rescue workers, the number of which had grown to hundreds.”

“It was very hot and humid, and the heavy equipment being used at the scene to clean up the road made things feel even hotter. We gave out about 2,000 bottles, and when we ran out we went to local stores to buy more water and distributed that as well.”

Their chessed didn’t stop there. “We also helped some rescue vehicles change their batteries,” said Almasi — the kind of work, along with changing flat tires and helping stranded motorists get their vehicles started, that is more in line with the regular work the organization does, he said.

Of course, the death of the driver and the circumstances of the accident — the truck’s crane, which had been raised above the legal height, collided with the bridge and brought it down — were the focus of media coverage. The related issue of highway safety, accusations and denials about whether the bridge had been properly inspected, were reported on extensively. As so often happens, the search for someone to blame only compounded the tragedy.

But there were also aspects of diligent professionalism and selfless caring. For most journalists these are secondary to the main story of death and disaster, if any attention to them is paid at all. Hamodia covered these aspects of the tragedy, including the work of Yedidim, though hardly anyone else did.

The chessed of Hatzalah and ZAKA volunteers was only routinely mentioned in the mainstream media, which has come to take their presence for granted at scenes of terrorism and disaster. It’s not entirely the fault of the journalists, as the paramedics perform with a high level of skill and sensitivity to human suffering that they have made to seem routine. This they did once again on Monday night.

The contribution of such groups as Hatzalah, ZAKA and Yedidim deserve very honorable mention. These “road angels” have their counterparts in the U.S. as well, indeed in Jewish communities everywhere.

For example, chessed organizations in Monsey and Kiryas Yoel (two communities near major highways to the Catskills) have in the past repeatedly come to the rescue of travelers stranded in traffic jams on Erev Shabbos and other times.

Nor are such activities the exclusive domain of any organization. A group name and uniform are not prerequisites to going out and helping others in distress when the need arises. As the Chofetz Chaim noted, the mitzvah called ahavas chessed, love of doing kindness, is performed willingly, and opportunities to do so are sought out, without any interest in compensation.

The payment they seek is in the performance of the mitzvah, in the satisfaction that comes from helping others. They deserve recognition, however, not because they want publicity, but because it is incumbent on the rest of us to appreciate such behavior, to honor it and to encourage others to emulate it.