Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a prominent member of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community who founded a volunteer paramedic service before being embroiled in sexual abuse allegations, has died aged 62.
Meshi-Zahav was hospitalised last year after attempting suicide as accusers stepped forward alleging years of sexual abuse after he was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the country’s highest civilian honour.
Jerusalem’s Herzog Medical Centre confirmed his death on Wednesday, but did not give a cause.
For decades, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was one of Israel’s most recognisable faces, widely respected for founding an ultra-Orthodox rescue service that bridged the divide between religious and secular Israelis and cared for the victims of Palestinian attacks.
He formed ZAKA in 1995, six years after he provided first aid to victims of a deadly Palestinian bus attack that killed 16 people near Jerusalem.
His organisation’s volunteers helped identify the victims of disasters and suicide bombings and collect their remains for a Jewish burial. The group expanded to include first response paramedics and broad recognition in Israel.
But after the announcement in March 2021 that he would receive the Israel Prize, his accusers came forward, saying Meshi-Zahav committed horrendous acts of sexual abuse of men, women and children over several decades, and that the ultra-Orthodox community shielded him with a wall of silence.